June 14, 2011
Where: General release
When: Now showing
THERE’S a marvellous moment in Oranges and Sunshine when social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) is called in to see her boss. Humphreys has been distracted from her regular work by her gradual discovery of the scandalous forced migration of underprivileged children from the UK to Australia and other Commonwealth countries, a program that continued until the late 1960s. If this were a Hollywood movie, she’d be out on her ear, vilified and dismissed by a heartless manager. But this is based on real events and, as we all know, truth is often stranger than fiction.
After cutting his teeth in TV, for his debut film Jim Loach (son of the great British social realist Ken) has picked a subject that would make his old man proud. The extraordinary tale of the thousands of children sent to children’s homes on the other side of the world, often having been told their parents were dead, almost defies belief.
The efforts of Humphreys, who became an indefatigable champion of these fractured families and was instrumental in reuniting so many of them, also gives rise to the sort of material that in LA would be turned into award-baiting films like Erin Brockovich. Instead, Loach comes down on the side of subtlety and restraint. The film is almost a docudrama at times and Watson has been criticised for her unshowy and contained performance. But she’s right – flashy histrionics are not called for here. Instead, we have her quiet determination juxtaposed with some simply wonderful work from quality local actors like Hugo Weaving, Greg Stone and David Wenham – the latter, in particular, creating one of the most complex and fascinatingly layered characters in the film. The scene where Len (Wenham) takes Humphreys to visit the Christian Brothers home where he grew up is a mini lesson in creating tension on screen. With barely a word of dialogue, the all-round unease is palpable.