The West Australian
June 14, 2011
As the mother of two young children, Emily Watson had a deep pool of experience to draw from for her latest movie role.
But it was the death of her own mother shortly before filming that made Oranges and Sunshine a particularly poignant movie for the highly regarded English actress.
In one of her most emotionally challenging and complex parts so far, Watson plays British social worker Margaret Humphreys who, in the 1980s, uncovered one of the most significant social scandals of recent times: the deportation between the 1920s and 60s of thousands of children from Britain to Australia.
Humphreys, on whose book Empty Cradles the film is based, estimates more than 150,000 children – some as young as four – who were either orphaned, illegitimate or taken into care were shipped to the outer reaches of the Commonwealth, where many were subjected to cruelty and deprivation.
“To my shame I didn’t know anything about what happened,” the well-educated Watson says over the phone from England.
“I read the script and thought, ‘My God, this is an incredible story.’
“It’s extraordinary how we in a civilised society can just abandon thousands and thousands of children to a terrible fate and nobody even knows about it, that it doesn’t bear strongly on our national consciousness at all. I felt it was a story that really deserved to be told.”
Director Jim Loach’s debut feature Oranges and Sunshine is a profoundly moving film, not only because of the subject matter but for the deeper issues it raises around identity and the long-lasting psychological effect being separated from our mothers in any circumstances can have on us.
Watson believes Oranges and Sunshine is a film everyone will relate to – “The relationship we have with our mothers is the first building block of our lives,” says the mother of five-year-old daughter Juliet and two-year-old son Dylan – although for her the timing of the film made the material she was dealing with all the more emotive.
In the northern autumn of 2009, her 69-year-old mother was taken ill, prompting the actress to make a dash to her bedside to say her goodbyes. She eventually pulled through but just after Christmas, shortly before filming for Oranges and Sunshine commenced in Australia, Watson received another call to say her mother had been taken into intensive care with encephalitis, an infection of the brain.
Loach stood the cast and crew down for a week to allow his lead actress to return home but she arrived too late. Her mother died five minutes before her plane touched down in London.
Watson says she takes comfort in the fact she “said all the things I wanted to thinking it was the end” that autumn but admits it was impossible to keep a lid on her grief during filming.
“It was pretty intense,” she says. “I literally went from the funeral to the airport, got a plane to Australia and then I was back on the set filming again.
“And it was very hard because every single scene was about someone’s mother. So I feel like my mum is in every scene in that film in some way.”
Watson, who earned an Oscar nomination for her first screen role in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, says she felt humbled to play such “a very morally compelled person” as Humphreys, who in the 2011 New Year’s honours list was awarded a CBE for services to disadvantaged people.
However, unlike her co-stars, Australians Hugo Weaving and David Wenham, who met the child migrants they portray in the film, Watson chose instead to immerse herself in literature and documentaries about her subject.
“I didn’t want to meet Margaret because in a way when you meet someone you feel really obligated to them,” the actress explains.
“I had seen footage of her on film but I wanted to bring myself to the role and tell it straight.
“People have said I am quite like her actually but I think that’s more because the script is so well-written. A lot of it is her words from her book.”
Like the rest of the cast and crew, Watson felt a sense of justice when, in February last year, while Oranges and Sunshine was in production in Australia, then British prime minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology in the House of Commons on behalf of the British Government.
It came after an acknowledgment of remorse to the “forgotten children” by former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd in November the previous year.
“It was a very lovely feeling that day on the set that after all the work Margaret had done . . . 20 years of pain and struggle . . . all those people whose lives had been affected were being acknowledged,” Watson recalls.
“They were being told, ‘Yes, you are our citizens, you are our children. You belong somewhere, you have an identity and we are deeply and truly sorry for what we did to you’.”
Oranges and Sunshine is now screening.