It’s a pretty safe bet that this film had some awfully fine lines to tread. In adapting the memoir of Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys – who exposed the truth behind the forced migration of over 130,000 children from Britain to Australia – director Jim Loach and screenwriter Rona Munro no doubt had countless personal and political raw nerves to consider (bear in mind ex-PMs Kevin Rudd and Gordon Brown offered their respective official apologies in 2009 and 2010). It is such charged circumstances, then, that we must consider Oranges & Sunshine; a film that very carefully and empathetically shines a light on this tragic chapter of British and Australian history.
Emily Watson is perfectly cast as the soft but stoic Humphreys. The film opens in 1986, with the gentle social worker undertaking the torturous task of separating a young mother from her baby. It may not be the subtlest way to begin a story about mandated child deportation, but the film’s sombre and compassionate tone is swiftly set. From there Humphreys faces her own incredulity upon learning of children cast to far flung colonies from post-war Britain, until a research montage reveals the harrowing realities and sets our heroine on a mission to reunite these fractured families.
Standing in for the thousands of horror stories of loss, abuse and deprivation are Hugo Weaving and David Wenham as Jack and Len. A broken, but not quite defeated man, Jack tells of being coaxed onto the boat with promises of Australian oranges and sunshine, while Len bridles with years of seething rage and tears he no longer knows how to shed. They are two beautiful performances, which bring great honesty and depth of feeling to some of the screenplay’s more laboured moments. If there’s too much telling and not enough showing in Oranges & Sunshine, then you’re at least happy to have the likes of Watson, Weaving and Wenham handling the exposition.
In his debut feature film, Jim Loach (son of British auteur Ken Loach) displays impressive craftsmanship and keen emotional intelligence. But one also can’t help to feel that a hard time was had in the editing suite, with patchy pacing suggesting there were just too many stories Loach and Munro wanted to squeeze in. And yet with Loach’s lengthy history in television, it begs the question why these tragic tales weren’t spun out into a high spec mini-series? This would have given everyone much more room to move and allowed the audience to invest themselves more fully with Humphreys’ achievements and the fates of more of these forgotten children.
Instead, Oranges & Sunshine is at its best a profoundly moving chronicle, while at its weakest the film seems superficial and strays dangerously close to midday movie sentimentality. And so in bringing to the screen the truth about the Lost Children of the Empire and their tireless champion Margaret Humphreys, Loach has undoubtedly created a worthy film, but not always one that’s cinematically worth watching.
- Three Stars
Australian release date: 9 June 2011
Australian DVD release date: 5 October 2011