‘Understated’ is a word that is rarely applied to mainstream entertainment today. With the rapid advancement in technology that enables 3D graphics and surround-sound not just into people’s cinemas but their living rooms, it’s a refreshing experience to sit and observe, and not be a player in the action. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not an archaic enough soul to wish it away, but the unobtrusive beauty of the way Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine (2011) unravelled meant the journey was emotional and poignant, as opposed to dramatic and hard-hitting.
It’s the kind subtle shake-up that’s very difficult to obtain and risky to attempt, but Jim Loach has proved with Oranges and Sunshine that putting trust in the talent of your actors and the gravitas of your story pays off tremendously.
Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, a Nottingham-based social worker and married mother of two, who is approached one evening by an Australian woman named Charlotte (Federay Holmes) who is searching for her mother. Margaret is apprehensive to believe her story at first, as Charlotte tells of being in an English children’s home until the age of four, when she was piled onto boats with thousands of other young children and shipped off to Australia. As absurd as the story seems to Margaret, her curiosity is aroused when another woman tells of her long-lost brother Jack (Hugo Weaving) contacting her from Australia and recalling a similar type of story. Margaret accompanies Jack’s sister Nicky (Lorraine Ashbourne) to Australia with her own agenda to unravel the mystery, but is highly unprepared for the shocking truths she discovers. Margaret is overwhelmed at the response her tentative plea for orphaned adults at a barbeque makes, and we watch her personal life suffer and the threats made on her life as she delves deeper into the pasts that come to light.
As an avid fan of Ken Loach since my university days (I know, what a cliché), I was very pleasantly surprised to see that his son, director Jim Loach, had absorbed precious elements of his father’s style, particularly in the exploration of moralistic issues. I was interested to learn that, despite his background in documentary making, Loach felt approaching this real-life story as a drama meant he could explore themes from different angles instead of the finger pointing that a documentary would bring.
Writer Rona Munro, faced with the challenge of telling thousand’s of people’s stories in one, focuses around Margaret in order to make it an emotional drama as opposed to a historical one, a decision that divides audiences but one I felt was highly effective. As told through the eyes and experiences of Margaret Humphreys herself, Oranges and Sunshine shows the devastating effects of parent/child separation and loss of identity, as well as the consequences that absorbing other’s pain had on Margaret herself and her family. A particularly memorable line uttered from her son came after a light-hearted discussion over Christmas dinner between Margaret’s family and the Australian orphans, when in swapping gifts stories he says, ‘You got my mum’. The table falls silent while the gravity of his statement sinks in, until the situation is saved by Pauline (Tara Morice) expressing their gratitude that Margaret came into their lives.
Rather than pile on the sentiment and wring the emotion dry, Loach lets the story speak for itself, a wise move considering the abhorrent tales some of its victims tell. Real footage occasionally splices into the film, serving to remind us that not only did this really happen, it occurred as recently as 1970.
The casting, one of the absolutely crucial elements of a successful movie, was handled extremely well by Kahleen Crawford and Nikki Barrett, as performers gelled well and emitted totally believable chemistry. The performances are outstanding, particularly from Watson and Weaving, yet all involved seemed to respect the story and its significance enough to really connect with the parts they play.
Despite the difficulties the team faced when filming on opposite sides of the world, Oranges and Sunshine beats with one heart and develops its story coherently. As well as allowing the audience a glimpse of the lives some of the people had, the film served an important purpose in exposing the scandal, as during the film’s production both the UK and the Australian governments offered public apologies to the parents and children who were separated, mistreated and lied to. Fingers crossed this film will enjoy the recognition it deserves.