The story of Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson), a social worker from Nottingham, who uncovered one of the most significant social scandals in recent times: the forced migration of children from the United Kingdom. Almost singlehandedly, against overwhelming odds and with little regard for her own well-being, Margaret reunited thousands of families, brought authorities to account and worldwide attention to an extraordinary miscarriage of justice. She discovered a secret that the British government had kept hidden for years: one hundred and thirty thousand children in care had been sent abroad to commonwealth countries, mainly Australia.
A matter-of-fact approach works both for and against Jim Loach’s directorial debut. Based as it is upon material that had the potential to jerk tears from go-to-woe, and beautifully understated in every regard, there will be some patrons who may resent that Loach denies them the 'Big Cry’ that seemed inevitable by the film’s halfway point. Regardless, there can be no complaints about the film as a compelling work of true-life drama, that much is certain.
Emily Watson stars as Margaret Humphreys, a happily-married Nottingham mum who part-times as a local area social worker. When a young Australian woman frustratingly thrusts documents into her hands, pleading for her to help find the mother she was separated from three decades ago, Humphreys begins to unravel a shameful secret that the British government had earlier buried: the deportation of lower-class children to the colonies, most notably Australia.
The degree of deception perpetrated upon hundreds of families by their government was shocking; the conditions under which children as young as five were shipped and held upon arrival even more so. Travelling to and from Australia, Humphreys hears the harrowing stories of dozens of adults, their self-identity in tatters after years coping with displacement and familial disconnect, and undertakes to search for the truth at any cost (including her health and own young family’s peace of mind).
Loach, son of revered veteran British filmmaker Ken Loach, is fully aware of the grandness of his narrative canvas and his film names and shames in its quest to right horrible social wrongs. Key scenes serving that purpose include Margaret and her husband Merv (Richard Dillane) facing off against a haughty boardroom full of red-tapers, and an extended sequence when she travels to the Church-run outback home where the children were kept and abused.
Loach also understands there is no reversing the effects of government policies of long ago. Oranges and Sunshines (so-named after the promise made to the children of their new life, far away) works best during its most intimate moments, when the actions of the past are put in context with the pain of the present. The gruff, archetypal 'Australian’ men who reveal their lifelong anguish to Humphreys convey precisely the harrowing psychological effects of the deportation policy. These small but deeply moving passages are expertly written by Rona Munro and played to perfection by Geoff Morrell and other supports.
David Wenham, as the stoic, self-made survivor Len, and Hugo Weaving as the sweet, emotionally-fragile Jack represent how Loach encapsulates the deportee’s adult experience. Wenham’s character is charismatic but hard to define; early scenes suggest he may be a bully prone to drunkenness, but he soon morphs into a seemingly-wealthy benefactor who lets his guard down around Margaret. Weaving is nothing short of brilliant as the soft-spoken Jack. Despite a face buried under a thick beard and draped in that most manly of attire, the flannelette shirt, he is very much the abandoned little boy that he was 30 years ago; his hotel room emotional breakdown, the intensity of which was shared by several audience members at the preview screening, is perfect screen acting.
It becomes evident that the complete lack of sentimentality in Loach’s direction and Munro’s script is not only welcome but entirely necessary. Oranges and Sunshine exposes a terrible moment in UK/Australian history and in doing so conveys a simple message about the importance of family, and in particular, a mother’s love. As Humphreys, the superb Emily Watson encapsulates a woman who felt compelled to provide a wayward generation of damaged people with a new faith in life, simply by caring. That her actions also helped to reaffirm her own innate worth as a parent is central to Loach’s impressive first work, indicating he’s already a director with a keen insight into the human experience.
Watch 'Oranges and Sunshine'
Wednesday 21 October, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Director: Jim Loach
Starring: Hugo Weaving, Emily Watson, David Wenham, Aisling Loften