June 4, 2011
IN his latest role, actor David Wenham plays a man who is almost impossible to like, and who has been subject to unspeakable cruelty.
SOME movie titles tell the full story. Oranges and Sunshine does the opposite.
Many Australians will be familiar with the tragic plight of thousands of children who were deported from Britain in the 1950s and 1960s and shipped around the world.
They were promised a life full of “oranges and sunshine”. In reality, they experienced hardship and, in many cases, physical and sexual abuse.
What is not well known is the story of Margaret Humphreys (played by Emily Watson), the social worker from Nottingham who worked so hard to highlight the plight of those who were so badly treated and to help those deported children, now middle-aged adults, reconnect with their families.
For David Wenham, Oranges and Sunshine is just another unexpected turn in a career that’s followed an unusual path.
Wenham says he was like the many Australians who knew some of the story but not the details.
“It’s a piece of our history that not many people are aware of. A small proportion of the population are aware of the extent that it occurred,” Wenham says.
“I was aware of the scheme but certainly not aware of the extent of it.
“I found it a really moving, touching, thought-provoking script.”
Wenham’s involvement in the film, which was shot in Britain and Australia, began when he went to a small London cafe to meet Jim Loach. Loach, the son of influential filmmaker Ken, is a documentary maker who has turned to this subject of social history for his first feature film.
“By the time I had finished having my coffee with him, I was sold. I thought, ‘You’re a really fascinating filmmaker and I would love to work with you’,” Wenham says, commenting that the question of Ken Loach’s influences on his son never came up.
“It was something we never spoke about and it was something we never needed to speak about either,” he says.
“He’s obviously his own man. He’s experienced and he had a very clear take on the film and what he was going to make. I’m sure his father’s work has had an influence on him but we never really spoke about that because I just wanted to honour the job I was doing for him.”
Before that meeting, Loach had already spent about three years working to condense a story involving so many people into a version that could be translated for the screen. The key, he decided, was to tell it through the eyes of Humphreys.
“You can only cover so much of it in a film,” Wenham says. “It’s not only Australia 130,000 kids were sent to Commonwealth countries. She’s worked in the ex-Rhodesia, she’s worked in New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and still does.
“The work that she’s done here is truly remarkable.
“Her personal journey is quite extraordinary and how she has facilitated putting so many people back in touch with the families that they thought never existed is remarkable.
“I’ve met some of the people who are extremely grateful for what she has given them and has helped them deal with the really harsh experiences that they were dealt early on in life.”
While the story of Oranges and Sunshine was what dragged Wenham in, the role he signed on to play was almost enough to put him off.
This is not a typical role for an actor who seems to alternate between starring man and quirky/funny/solid sidekick. Here he plays one of the many victims, and not a likable one at that.
When Wenham’s character, Len, meets Humphreys, he isn’t grateful for her help but rude about her interference. Many people open their hearts to the social worker from England. Len puts up walls.
“The very first time I read this script I thought this character is nearly unplayable because he doesn’t respond or react in a way that you would expect somebody who has been through those experiences would,” Wenham says.
“A real curly one had been thrown at me but I was lucky enough to go to Perth and met a gentleman upon whose experiences that character is very, very, very loosely based.
“He’s had dealings with Margaret Humphreys over the years and a very similar relationship has occurred over that period of time. They were opposite ends of the spectrum when they first met, politically as well. Anything that was brought up, they were diametrically opposed. But now they recognise those differences but they also cherish the commonality of their goals and experiences.
“Talking to this guy and spending time with him, I got to understand how this character operated, why he was like that, and I found him fascinating.”
Wenham says he found a sense of freedom in playing a character that was inspired by a real person but in a role that did not require him to mimic anyone. There was another freedom for him in being a member of a group effort.
Hugo Weaving is another part of the group, playing a victim of the scheme called Jack. On the outside, Jack is a rugged, bearded man but he is as fragile as glass on the inside.
“I love working with actors and just being part of it. I think if you spoke to Hugo, Hugo would say the same thing,” Wenham says.
“When a film or piece of theatre is at its best, it’s when all the performances are on an equal level. You lose yourself in the story and the characters and nothing really pops out. That’s when it’s at its most rewarding and fulfilling when you’ve done your part but everybody else has done their part equally well.
“Hugo is certainly one of our greats. He’s always been a great actor but his work, he keeps surprising. I always look forward to the next thing Hugo does because he’s someone who is always wanting to push the edge of the envelope. I have the greatest respect for him.”
Wenham has just as much praise for his other co-star, Watson, having first worked with her on the film The Proposition.
“Whatever Emily does, she’s always extremely convincing and she chooses her roles very, very carefully,” he says.
“I think this is a perfect piece for her. She was extremely passionate about the project. She’s tremendous, she’s extremely smart, she questions, she obviously puts a huge amount of time into preparation. Once we arrive on set and we’re ready to go, she’s at the top of the game.”
In the film, Wenham’s character takes Humphreys to Bindoon, in Western Australia, the Catholic agricultural college at the centre of many of the abuse claims.
That scene was shot elsewhere but Wenham did get the chance to go to the real Bindoon.
“It was very, very easy to imagine what it was like only a matter of a few decades prior,” he says.
“What was harder to imagine was that these kids actually built it. That was one of the extraordinary parts.”
As for the roles he plays, Wenham says there is no grand plan.
“It’s hard for any actor, no matter where you are on the ladder, to really craft a career,” he says.
“The only way you can do that is really what you say yes and what you say no to.
“I came from the theatre so taking a left-hand turn into film and television was a surprise to me. Now I’ve ended up doing more work in film and television but every now and then I’m tempted to go back.
“I’m just about to do a play where I’m an ensemble member and I’m really looking forward to that.”
Oranges and Sunshine opens on Thursday.