June 3, 2011
Despite promises made to the child deportees in Oranges and Sunshine, many of them got nothing but pain and servitude. By Tim Elliott.
It doesn’t sound like much – a middle-aged English woman sitting quietly in a room full of clergymen.
But, as showdowns go, the scene in Oranges and Sunshine where Margaret Humphreys challenges the Christian Brothers on their home turf is as powerful as they come, encapsulating the ambition of this confrontational film and the talent of its cast.
Equal parts history, docu-drama and thriller, the film tells the story of Humphreys (Emily Watson), a British social worker who, in the late 1980s, uncovered one of the most significant scandals of recent times – the deportation of thousands of children from Britain to Australia.
Search for identity … orphan Jack (Hugo Weaving) and social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson).
”These children, these people, they went through hell,” says Hugo Weaving, who plays a former child migrant named Jack.
”Their whole story, and that of the film, is about identity and abandonment and though it is quite harrowing, it’s also beautifully told.”
Directed by Jim Loach (son of Ken), the film is told through the eyes of Humphreys, who is cornered one night in 1986 by an angry Australian named Charlotte. Charlotte claims to have been in a Nottingham children’s home when, at the age of four, she was put on a boat and sent to Australia.
Where, she now wants to know, is her mum?
Humphreys can scarcely believe it – what government deports four-year-olds to a foreign country without their parents? A week later, however, she learns of another man who was taken to Australia as a boy on another ship full of children.
Looking into the archives, Humphreys discovers thousands of others, lost sons and daughters desperate to find their parents.
Loach is dealing with unbearably sad material here. As Humphreys travels to Australia, she locates the broken detritus of what we now know as the British government’s child migrant policy – men like Jack, now in middle age, who were told their parents had either died or abandoned them and who, upon arrival in Australia, were often abused or neglected by their ”carers”.
As Jack explains to Humphreys, ”one day a man in a suit came and asked if we wanted to go to this place called Australia, where the sun shone all day and you could pick oranges off the trees”. As Jack considered this, the man added, ”You know, your parents are dead, so you might as well.”
Weaving calls it a triple injustice. ”The kids felt they were abandoned not only by their parents but by their country and then again by the institution in Australia that was meant to be caring for them.”
Jack’s character is a composite of several real-life child migrants, one of whom, Harold Haig, works at the Child Migrants Trust in Melbourne. Weaving met Haig for his research and read Humphreys’s book, Empty Cradles. But part of his preparation came closer to home.
”My mother was from Bristol,” Weaving says. ”During World War II, when she was four years old, she was sent to Canada for four years to get away from what they thought would be a German invasion.”
Though initially accompanied by her eight-year-old brother, the two children were separated upon arrival. ”That kind of isolation forces the child to be emotionally independent of other people; you create an interior emotional world to protect yourself.
”When my mother finally got back to England, she had very little connection to her parents; she just remembers this crazy-looking woman running down the platform towards her and then realising that it must be her mum.”
For many child migrants, however, there was no return and no happy ending. Indeed, giving a true sense of the multiplicity and depth of the suffering – so many people with so many stories – is one of the film’s principal triumphs. ‘
‘There are lots of voices in the movie and it’s so polyphonic that it could have been overwhelmed,” Weaving says. ”But Jim modulated that very well, with each character telling a different part of the wider story.”
There is, for example, Len (David Wenham), a prickly, self-made man whose abrasiveness hides a profoundly wounded soul. It’s Len who finally convinces Humphreys to visit his old ”home” at Bindoon Boys’ Town, where she confronts a remaining cadre of Christian Brothers. But not all of those accused of abusing the children were so happy to be challenged – the film ably depicts Humphreys’s terror as she receives death threats and physical attacks.
”It’s a timely film,” Weaving says. ”The day I flew out to England for some of the filming was the day that [Kevin] Rudd apologised to the child migrants [for the Australian government’s role]. It’s terrible that it’s only coming out now but great that people are feeling that, in some way, they are being recognised and having their story told.
”It’s small but it’s something.”
ORANGES AND SUNSHINE
Director Jim Loach Stars
Hugo Weaving, Emily Watson, David Wenham Rated M. Opens Thursday.
They called them the “Seeds of Empire”, British children, some as young as four, who were shipped off to populate the outer reaches of the Commonwealth. It’s thought that between 1920 and 1967, some 150,000 children, with an average age of eight years and nine months, were transported from Britain to countries such as Canada, Rhodesia, New Zealand and Australia.
Most of the 7000 to 10,000 children who arrived in Australia were not adopted or placed in foster care but farmed out as cheap labour to residential institutions run by Barnardos, the Fairbridge Society, the Church of England and the Christian Brothers.
Margaret Humphreys first highlighted the scheme’s traumatic legacy in 1987 but it wasn’t until 1997 that the British House of Commons Health Committee took responsibility, recognising child migrants had been “placed in large, often isolated, institutions and were often subjected to harsh, sometimes intentionally brutal, regimes of work and discipline”.
In November 2009, then Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the child migrants on behalf of the nation. In February 2010, then British prime minister Gordon Brown did likewise, announcing a £6 million fund to compensate families affected by the ”misguided” and “shameful” policy.