Directed by Jim Loach
Screenplay by Rona Munro
‘Issue’ films can be uniquely difficult propositions to successfully render in a cinematic form. In order to succeed the filmmakers must achieve a unique balancing act of delivering the facts of a certain event or happenstance whilst obeying those instinctive rules of film-making, namely the establishment of empathy and affinity with a central figure who serves as the celluloid avatar, as through their eyes we are drawn into a narrative that illuminates a grave injustice, a shocking abuse or criminal failure of responsibility that aims to ignite a sense of rage and sympathy in its impaled audience. In his debut film Jim Loach – son of the venerated Ken – successfully (for the most part) navigates these parameters in a powerfully moving and understated account of a grevious social crime that had been committed by the governments of Great Britain and Australia, a transgression against their statutory obligations to protect the children in their care that only achieved an official apology last year after decades of systematic abuse. Drawing the audience into the shocking tale through the prism of one interloper Oranges & Sunshine charts the experience of Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys (a grounded and understated performance of simple decency from the always excellent Emily Watson), who accidentally unearthed the story of thousands of working-class British children separated from their families – mostly due to the shame of unwanted and unwed pregnancies – and siblings and sent to Australia between the end of the second world war and the early 1970s. Although some were orphans, some weren’t and were advised otherwise by the officials of the era, the infants essentially suffering enforced deportation, where many of them were decanted into the ‘care’ of brutal religious organisations who consequently exposed the children and juveniles to a horrific litany of battery and buggery, of both the physical and emotional variety.
Margaret Humphreys gleaned details of these shadowy deportations through her stewardship of various social support groups when within a couple of days of each other in 1986 she was approached by two women from differing angles to the scandal. One Australian, deported against her consent, was searching for the mother she’d never met and and for her own unknown identity. The other Englishwoman had been shocked to discover she had a middle-aged brother whom got in touch with her completely out of the blue. With her strong sense of social responsibility, not to mention a healthy curiosity into the emotional lives of her clients and Margaret embarked on mission to discover how generations of bureaucrats had colluded and conspired to mistreat vulnerable children in such an appalling fashion, as she attempted to reunite parent and child, sibling with sibling through the establishment of the Child Migrants Trust.
The film zeroes in on a handful of specific cases amongst the sickening 130,000 incidences that occurred, the most effective of which are Hugo Weaving’s Jack who sketches a heartbreaking performance in little more than half a dozen scenes where the void of a mother figure seems to have paralysed his search for his own identity and his chances for a normal, regular life, some slight comic relief is provided by David Wenham’s turn as the jovially shielded Len whose pragmatic approach to his brutal childhood betrays a similarly bruised and battered psychological burden. The film is faintly hobbled with the expected complaints of Margaret’s marginalised children (although her sympathetic husband seems to take the eclipse of his wife’s supposed priorities in his stride) which of course provide the expected dramatic sense of sacrifice that her crusade entails, it’s the films only acquiescence to narrative expectations along with the portrayal of the government officials from both the Northern and Western hemispheres as the coldly aloof and arrogant bureaucrats that is expected from such a belligerent overture. Curiously the religious groups whom were at the centre of the abuse get short thrift in the films final act, an oversight that one can only assume was directed from the productions legal advisers, the filmmakers settling for a brief and incongruous visit to one of the deistic domiciles that doesn’t quite match the tone of the rest of film, even as it provides Margaret with some sense of moral closure. An ideal companion piece with Philip Noyce’s similarly heartbreaking Rabbit-Proof Fence where the tale was focused on the mistreatment of the indigenous aboriginal children, Oranges & Sunshine is a moving and powerful polemic.
– John McEntee