Jim Loach’s first film Oranges And Sunshine is a sobering film about the forced deportation of English children to Australia which occurred during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Disturbingly, many parents were told that their children had been adopted while the kids themselves were often told that their parents had died. The authorities denied any such mass deportation had occurred until recently, when an apology was issued by both governments.
Set in 1986, it follows Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson), a social worker from Nottingham as she slowly uncovers a staggering social injustice.
Loach paints a very human picture of Margaret, a hard working and determined woman juggling a family in England whilst unravelling the complicated histories of thousands of people on both sides of the world. Loach neatly sidesteps the temptation for this to be the story “one woman against the government” by keeping the focus on Margaret and two individuals.
The first is Jack (Hugo Weaving), a man left a nervous wreck after his experiences, recently reunited with his sister but still desperate to find the answers he’s convinced will come if he locates his mother too. The other is Len, initially an extremely hostile and prickly character who eventually develops a close relationship with Margaret. It’s a very strong performance from David Wenham whose constant aggressiveness wouldn’t be out of place in the sinister Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom released earlier this year.
He leads her to Bindoon, a children’s home in the bush run by the Christian Brothers– a place which holds horrific memories for the many children who were raised there.
It’s the story of hard work and a constant war of attrition – there are no quick fixes here, either from the governments or for the vast scale of psychological damage inflicted upon the children of its sanctioned scheme. Importantly Margaret is never hailed as a messiah; she’s merely a good woman persistently seeking the truth and Emily Watson’s performance keeps her believably grounded. Loach also resists obvious confrontation and avoids turning a sensitive drama into overblown melodrama.
Loach keeps the story simple with no obvious directorial flourishes but there is a persistent feeling that Oranges And Sunshine is a TV movie that made the big screen; there’s no particular reason why it warrants a cinema visit.
It also leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Why were they deported? What were the repercussions of her actions? What happened to the Brotherhood in Bindoon after they were confronted with what they’d done? Keeping the focus tight is unfortunately a double-edged sword – personal stories are resolved at the expense of answers to the bigger picture.