ORANGES AND SUNSHINE. Starring: Emily Watson, David Wenham, Hugo Weaving, and Richard Dillane. Directed by Jim Loach. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language). 105 min.
This Australian film tells the story of a Nottingham social worker, Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson), who almost singlehandedly confronted the UK Government on its relocation scheme that forcibly moved more than 130,000 children from the UK to other countries between the 1940s and the 1970s. More than 7,000 so-called “degenerate” and “unfit” children, who were in the protection of the UK social services, were shipped to Australia. Margaret began her research investigations of the lost children of Britain in 1986, and published her book on them, “Empty Cradles”, in 1996. This film is based on her book.
Children were told their parents were dead. Parents thought their children were adopted. In reality, the children were deported. Giving meaning to the title of the film, children were told to expect “oranges and sunshine” when they reached Australia. Instead, they were used here as unpaid labour, and many of them were physically and sexually abused. Many of the institutions, orphanages and schools in Australia to which they were sent were Church-run. Some of them were run by the Christian Brothers, Barnardos, and other charities. Humphreys brought the scandal to the attention of the world, and worked tirelessly to rectify the injustice. She continues to fight for the victims.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the movie is that it treats these events with a complete lack of sensationalism, giving the movie great power. The film dramatizes what the children and their parents went through, and focuses mainly on the effects of the injustice on the children, who now, as adults, are desperately coping with a loss of identity. Emily Watson gives an extraordinary performance as the fiercely determined Margaret. Her portrayal of a professionally disciplined social worker is without any artifice, or affectation. Her efforts under stress take her to the edge of mental illness, as she becomes increasingly disturbed by what she hears, and what she cannot achieve. In looking after others, she sacrifices her own emotional life in the process, and this is seen best in the nature of her interactions with her devoted husband, Mervyn (Richard Dillane) and her children. She is personally and professionally overwhelmed by the tragedy of so many deportees who don’t know who they are, who they have been, and are tragically uncertain that they have ever experienced love.
The film could have been highly melodramatic and sentimental, but it is not. Jim Loach, as first-time Director, offers us a sobering account of what happened. Like his father (Ken Loach), he makes powerful use of realism, in exploring family life for the deportees, and for Margaret. David Wenham luminously plays Len, a person who bears the scars of what he went through, but gets his feelings together enough to exact quiet revenge on the Christian Brothers at the remote Catholic institution, where he was educated and abused. Hugo Weaving compellingly plays the role of an orphan, Jack, who is deeply depressed about what he has endured. He can’t relate to others socially, and is pathologically shy. Margaret tries to integrate Jack back into Society, but can’t.
This is a social-issues film of great restraint that demonstrates a passionate commitment to justice, and it searches for the truth behind terrible wrong. It does not suggest answers, and the anger that the film arouses clouds the reasons for what happened. The film offers no conclusion, and it misses the chance to raise, or engender debate about, the moral principles that might have prevented some of the suffering. However, one feels acute distress at the anguish the film depicts. The treatment of the children was the shame of Governments in Australia and the UK.
This is a powerful film that should be seen. It considers a particularly dark chapter of Catholic history in this country, and it shows events that must never be allowed to happen again.
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Icon Film Distribution.
Out June 9, 2011.