Shiny Shelf

Oranges & Sunshine

By Jim Smith on 31 March 2011

‘Oranges & Sunshine’ is the story of social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson). Mrs Humphreys became – as the result of a chance meeting with a distressed woman in a Nottinghamshire car park – the leading light of a movement which sought justice for hundreds British children who were illegally deported to Australia in the decades immediately after the second world war.

Said children, residents of council homes and thus legally in the charge of the state, were sent abroad for “new lives”, ostensibly to be fostered or adopted. Many (most?) simply ended up in children’s homes on the other side of the world. There, separated from any relatives they did have, many suffered dreadful deprivations in institutions where they were used as child labour (justified as “payment” for their keep). A large percentage were abused emotionally, physically and/or sexually. Often by representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, whose use of orphaned boys to build, brick by brick, a monastery (complete with swimming pool) for an Australian based order of monks is, astonishingly enough, nowhere near the most shocking or appalling truth  in the picture.

Scripted by Rona Munro (‘Ladybird, Ladybird’, the RSC’s ‘Little Eagles’) and directed by Jim Loach (he is Ken’s son, yes) ‘Oranges & Sunshine’ is a very direct film. The story it tells is as straightforward in narrative terms as it is scandalous in moral terms. Righteous anger and some outstanding performances are what drive a film which, except for a brief sequence early on, eshews the “detective story” structure that a lesser writer may have imposed on Humphreys search for truth. (The programme was extensively covered up after it ceased in the 1970s and its existence not even publically admitted to until after Humphreys had begun her work.)  Instead, the facts are apparent from early on and we come to understand the emotional consequences of the child deportations through the characters with whom Margaret comes into contact.

The two principle former deportees are both fictional conflations, but nothing they say didn’t really happen to someone. They’re Jack (Hugo Weaving) and Len (David Wenham). Weaving is widely and rightly recognised as a hugely capable actor, but this is the first film I’ve seen him in that I wouldn’t describe as either space pants or fantasy nonsense.  His performance here is remarkable. Of a standard which means that you hope there are, at the very least, nominations for major acting awards coming his way for what he achieves here. David Wenham is almost equally remarkable as Len, another deportee whose similar suffering has produced a very differently vulnerable kind of man. Outwardly confident and hugely successful, he affects great gratitude to the Church for his upbringing, while harbouring barely admitted memories of systematic abuse inconceivable to most people.  Watson is the calm, moral centre of the piece as a woman who simply does not understand how remarkable she is or how much greater her courage and compassion are than most people.

This is an excellent film. Courageously presenting, dissecting an important subject with clarity, compassion and vigour. It’s also a distressing and even harrowing experience at times, but on no account should you let that put you off seeing it.

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