October 23, 2011
The film follows along the true story of thousands of children promised a bright future but forced to face a Dickensian nightmare.
When British social worker Margaret Humphreys (played by Emily Watson) informs a woman working in a pub that the daughter she gave up for adoption as an unwed mother in the 1950s was later sent to a children’s home in Australia, she is stunned: “They told me that she had been adopted by a good family. What was she doing in a children’s home on the other side of the world?”
It’s just one of the incredible true stories portrayed in “Oranges and Sunshine,” based on the book “Empty Cradles,” written by Humphreys in 1994. Humphreys was working as a social worker in Nottingham in the 1980s when she uncovered a social scandal that the Australian and British governments had dismissed — the forcible migration of about 7,000 children in care from 1947 to 1970. Many children were told they were orphans and had no idea they still had living parents back in the U.K. Humphreys has been instrumental and to this day works in uniting thousands of families.
The children were promised a future “where the sun shines all the time and you can pick oranges off the tree for breakfast” (the inspiration for the title of the film). What awaited them was more like a Dickensian nightmare. Most of them ended up in institutions and treated as slave labor, suffering unbelievable deprivation, physical and quite often sexual abuse.
With an extraordinary British and Australian cast including Watson, Hugo Weaving and David Wenham, first-time feature director Jim Loach (son of respected British director Ken Loach) weaves a complicated and emotionally heart-wrenching tale.
It unfolds as a detective story, as Humphrey slowly puts the pieces of the jigsaw together and exposes the governments, charities and churches that refuse to take responsibility. The film manages to tell many stories, but wisely focuses on two main characters: Jack (Weaving), a withdrawn man who finally unites with his sister back in the U.K.; and the brash Len (Wenham), who reveals the horrors of hard back-breaking labor, floggings and sexual abuse at the notorious Bindoon — a boys home in remote Western Australia, run at the time by the Christian Brothers.
The topic could have easily been sensationalized or over-sentimentalized, but Loach shows poetic restraint in telling the story, leading to much more powerful and moving scenes.
Watson is perfect in the role as the social worker. She is quiet and still as she listens, but her eyes tell it all. We also see the effect it has on her own home life as she tries to keep her family together while traveling back and forth to Australia, as well as the danger she faced from intimidation and death threats as she got closer to the truth.
While the film was in production both the prime minister of Australia and Britain issued formal apologies for the actions of their governments toward these child migrants.
It’s an extraordinary and almost hard-to-believe slice of history, and this masterful film gives the story and the people involved the dignity and regard they deserve.
KATHERINE TULICH has written about film for more than 20 years. A Sydney, Australia native, she was the film critic and feature writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter, and a guest critic on “At the Movies” with Ebert and Roeper. She can be reached at email@example.com.