Four out of Five stars
Running time: 105 mins
Impressively directed and superbly written, this is a powerfully emotional drama with a terrific central performance from Emily Watson.
What’s it all about?
Directed by Jim Loach (son of Ken), Oranges and Sunshine is based on the true story of the child migrants, young children given up for adoption who were told they were orphans and forcibly shipped to children’s homes in commonwealth countries (mainly Australia) between the ’40s and the ’70s, where many of them were subsequently subjected to horrific abuse. Beginning in 1986, the film stars Emily Watson as Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys, who stumbles upon both the secret and its shocking cover-up almost by accident when she helps an Australian woman (Tara Morice) find her birth mother in England.
Over the following years, Margaret divides her time between Australia and the UK, reuniting thousands of families and fighting both to bring the scandal to light and to expose the complicity of the governments involved. The film focuses on Margaret’s efforts with two cases in particular: weirdly aggressive Len (David Wenham), who has found his own unique method of revenge against the Christian Brothers at the abusive Bindoon home; and Jack (Hugo Weaving), a nervous, gentle, cripplingly shy man, whose experiences have almost destroyed him.
Watson is terrific as Margaret, delivering a stunning, vanity-free performance that feels heartbreakingly realistic – for example, where another actress might have had Margaret reacting emotionally to the horrific confessions she hears, Watson instead quietly listens and absorbs the information, understanding that she needs to suppress her own emotions if she’s going to be able to do the job effectively. There’s also strong support from both Wenham (unsettling, excellent) and Weaving (who has the most powerful scene in the film), while Richard Dillane is superb as Margaret’s extraordinarily understanding husband, Merv.
The script is excellent, avoiding the expected emotional confrontations (e.g. between Margaret and her family) and deliberately pulling back from sentimentality or sensationalism, while still telling an emotionally devastating story. In addition, Loach’s direction is assured throughout, making bold decisions with the editing, such as trusting the audience to tell the difference between England and Australia, and at times taking an almost documentary-like approach.
The film is also beautifully shot, courtesy of Denson Baker’s striking cinematography and there are several memorable scenes, most notably when Margaret is first approached by families at a child migrant reunion picnic.
Oranges and Sunshine is an impressively directed drama that packs a powerful emotional punch thanks to a superb script and a terrific central performance from Emily Watson. Highly recommended.