Between the 1950s and ’70s 150,000 children in the protection of social services were methodically deported to Australia. There many of them underwent appalling abuse at orphanages sponsored by the British Government.
This is the subject of Oranges and Sunshine: a title drawn from spurious promises given to the children on their departure.
Director Jim Loach’s first film is based on the book by social worker Margaret Humphreys, who discovered and fought to expose this egregious policy during the late ‘80s. Encountering resistance from the British government, facing threats from an Australian Catholic charity responsible for the most grievous abuse and under intense psychological pressure from hundreds of victims hoping to be reunited with their families in the UK, Emily Watson’s Margaret labours indefatigably to repair the damage of decades of incomprehensible suffering.
It is an impossible task. Overburdened with vicarious agonies, her work ethic, which was never lethargic, becomes increasingly and neurotically frenzied.
There are hints that she may be attempting to assuage her own conscience for separating mothers from their children in her capacity as social worker- the opening scene shows her doing just that- and perhaps overcompensating for the lengthy and frequent absences from her own children as she visits Australia.
These psychodynamic connections are not however amply explored. The psychology of charity is extremely interesting and I would have liked to see Margaret’s motives more closely examined; though I understand why the filmmakers may have been reluctant to do so.
Humphreys’ story has the features of a riveting narrative, driven by the patterned suspense of a detective drama and shifting gear to whistle-blowing conspiracy yarn. But sensitive to the actuality of the trauma it represents, you can see Oranges and Sunshine trying to foreground the distress of the victims, alongside Margaret’s dauntless work and her emotional overextension.
The pathos of her ceaseless altruism, and the moving gratitude of those she has helped, serves to balance these rightly upsetting accounts. Whether the balance tips too far towards the drama of Margaret’s psychological state is up for question; but the harmony of suffering and compassion is, as ever, irresistibly poignant.
Given how gratifying it is to watch the spectacle of anguish answered by compassion, and moreover that the narrative shape of these events is so amenable to entertaining storytelling, the filmmakers here are presented with a problem: just how pleasurable should a movie about real cruelty and distress be?
One can sense the predicament as the plot leaps and veers across genres, never quite committing to any. Director Loach and screenwriter Rona Munroe seem to ride the momentum of the crime and conspiracy narratives before pulling back from the brink of these storytelling conventions, anxious not to lose sight of the terrible reality.
There is a moment for example when Margaret summarises the enormity of the crime, apparently for her husband’s sake but really for the audience, uttering gravely: “You’re talking about the organised deportation of children in care…” It’s pure Hollywood in conspiracy/disaster mode. But in the next scene the tension produced by this convention is totally dissipated by refocusing on individual suffering.
The result is quite disorienting; and whilst motivated by moral integrity, these choices compromise the formal integrity of the film.
Along the same lines, Oranges and Sunshine sometimes makes the mistake of over-telling the story, embroidering it with emotional prompts we just don’t need: e.g. Margaret’s little boy has a nightmare that he couldn’t find his Mum, cueing up our sympathies for those who have. It’s too obvious to be effective, and the facts are quite distressing enough without recourse to this kind of trickery.
A breath-taking performance by Hugo Weaving (Mr. Smith from The Matrix no less) as the damaged but deeply honourable Jack often woke me from these kind of distant formal reflections. There were moments when I’m sure I could follow every twitch of thought and swell of feeling quiver through his tortured expression. The character development of fellow sufferer, Len (David Wenham), is psychologically complex and well used for the emotional pay-out, softening, as he does in his attitude to Margaret, from belligerent hostility to honesty and recognition.
Watson plays Margaret with inexhaustible self-denial and heroic tireless empathy. She is the wilting-eyed Madonna to the world’s miseries, peering timorously but defiantly out of a soul too much open to too much suffering. The self-martyring woman is an archetype that Watson is acquainted with, having made her debut as the pathologically self-abnegating Bess McNeil in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves; but I’m sorry to say I can’t quite get what she is doing here.
Watson’s expression is plastered at moments of emotional intensity. Confronted with unfathomable pain her eyes are fixed, brimming with condescension and aloof, like a nurse whose compassion has been blunted by decades of exposure to pain, or a nursery teacher cooing inanely whilst tending to the grazed knee of a bawling infant.
The mad insensible piousness as Bess McNeil exists here in that slightly deranged look of compassion, though Von Trier’s work of fiction can allow for much more moral ambiguity than Oranges and Sunshine. Her performance is either an incisive critique of altruism, which would seem a rather callous distraction from the central matter of the film; or insincere. Maybe the impassivity is intended to anticipate her psychological deterioration; but if so, it isn’t obviously the case.
The social realism characteristic of his award-winning father’s work hasn’t quite descended to Jim’s first outing, which features this strangely mannered acting and other examples, an exceptionally misjudged sex scene and a few moments of wince-inducing mawkishness. But make no mistake: it’s extremely difficult to make a civilized movie about real suffering. I did leave the cinema upset, outraged and disturbed; though just ever so slightly by the film itself, in addition to the incidents it depicts.
It is however an thought-provoking attempt to engage with the ethical problems of representation. The effort to balance entertainment with moral commitment is to the detriment of both in this moving, heartfelt but uneven debut.