Living in Cinema
October 20, 2011
Sometimes a story is so powerful, punching it up into a conventional cinematic narrative would only detract from it. So it is with Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine, the devastating true account of the decades of systematic deportation of poor children from England to Australia (and other parts of the Empire) where they were essentially used as forced labor for religious charities. With no advocates or power of their own, these children were ripe for abuse of every stripe and untold numbers were so taken advantage of.
Emily Watson plays Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys upon whose 1994 book Empty Cradles the film is based. In the late 1980s, while running a support group for adults who had been adopted as children, Humphreys was approached by an Australian woman who was looking for her English mother. Told as a little girl her mother had died, she had then been shipped off to Australia to live in a group home. The truth was that the mother was alive and well and had in turn been told that her baby girl had been adopted. By discovering the pattern of lies in this single case, Humphreys uncovered a government sponsored program that forced the deportation of upwards of 130,000 poor English children from around the turn of the century to as late as 1970.
As a blatantly issue-oriented film, Oranges and Sunshine very much relies on its core facts for nearly all of its power. The direction by Loach (son of Ken Loach) is simple and effective, though some have argued that it is plodding and uncinematic and that a documentary would have served the story just as well. The latter argument might be true, but it presumes the participation of enough of the principles to humanize the story the way this dramatization does. As for the other charges, Loach should be commended for the restraint he shows rather than condemned. Margaret Humphreys doesn’t need to be turned into Erin Brokovich for this story to hit home. Watson plays her straight up as an ordinary middle class woman and she’s wholly convincing. She brings the emotional fireworks as the story works up to its crescendos, but they feel organic and not like she’s just hitting her marks or mugging for awards.
Inevitably, Humphreys comes across as selfless and sacrificing in the end, but how can she not? Besides, she’s also plagued by doubt. Her investigations spanning two continents separate her from her own family and she’s also shown at the start of the film removing a child from the home of a mother deemed unfit by social services. The incident is never revisited, but it looms ambiguously over the rest of the film. How are Margaret’s actions very much different from those taken by her own government as recently as 15 years prior?
Partly by plumbing this gray area, but even more so through Watson’s wonderful even-keeled performance, Oranges and Sunshine avoids becoming hagiography. The story ultimately isn’t about Humphreys, she’s just the guide as the thousands of lives broken by a system that failed them are put back together. Fittingly, the most powerful and moving parts of the film involve those children, now adults, recounting the damage that had been done to them; not just the outright abuse, but the simple fact of growing up orphans without a connection to a family history and with the feeling they didn’t even know who they were.
Hugo Weaving plays one such victim in a quietly powerful performance that American audiences who know him from the Matrix and Lord of the Rings movies probably aren’t used to seeing. Like the film itself, Weaving is all the more moving for being subtle. His character Jack is tentative and uncertain, like a man who just doesn’t fit. Gentle but reticent, he’s prone to sudden waves of melancholy as his life plays out seemingly beyond his control. Though it’s only a supporting performance and though Watson too is terrific, Weaving is the film’s heart and soul and the key to much of its considerable impact.