ORANGES AND SUNSHINE tells the story of Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham, who uncovered one of the most significant social scandals in recent times: the forced migration of children from the United Kingdom. She discovered a secret that the British government had kept hidden for years: one hundred and thirty thousand children in care had been sent abroad to commonwealth countries, mainly Australia.
The fact of these forced migrations is well-known in 2011, however in the mid 1980s when these tales first came to public scrutiny in Britain, neither Humphreys nor the people she represented, had much credibility. Their accusations implicated some of the most respected child agencies in Britain, like Barnardo’s, as well as the governments of the United Kingdom and Australia.
In this respect the film ORANGES AND SUNSHINE is a classic whistle-blower tale that shares some similarities with Steven Soderbergh’s ERIN BROCKOVICH (2000) and Michael Mann’s THE INSIDER (1999). However, ORANGES AND SUNSHINE isn’t as dramatically heightened as the Hollywood version of this genre and instead is a quietly told tale that burns with the power of moral indignation.
Although the Second World War created the conditions to make forced migration even easier, the practice went on for a century, ending in 1970. The children who were shipped to Australia, usually had parents who were having difficulties. These children were fostered out by a variety of child agencies. The dominant belief now, is that the agencies found it cheaper to “look after” these children by shipping them to Australia. The Australian Government wanted to increase its Anglo-Celtic population and was therefore happy to accept these migrants. These unaccompanied minors were labeled orphans. In many cases this was a blatant lie.
The children were often forced into doing hard physical labour. Many were sexually abused by those charged with their care. The psychological scarring continued into adult life as most didn’t know what had happened to their parents or siblings. Their families were torn apart and their identities were taken away.
The film puts a human face on this harrowing tale by casting Hugo Weaving and David Wenham as two of the grown-up child migrants. Weaving plays Jack, a man who is found by a sister who remained in England. Jack recalls being taken from his foster home with the promise of “sunshine and oranges” in Australia.
Wenham plays Len. He is a spiky, complex personality who trusts no one. He is a self-made man who has great inner resources. Wenham also provides many of the film’s lighter moments. This is one of his best performances and his layered characterisation is a delight.
Margaret Humphreys is played by Emily Watson. Her character is essentially a cipher. Although this is partly Humphreys’ story, it is also the complex tale of thousands of child migrants. So having a fully rounded character in the centre of the story is not what this film required. Watson is a performer of great skill who knows how to connect with an audience. She plays Humphreys as absolutely ordinary in many ways, but she is possessed of an uncommon inner-strength.
Jim Loach (son of Ken) directs solidly but without any flair. This is his debut feature; his previous credits are for British television like CASUALTY, HOTEL BABYLON and HOLBY CITY. The film is based on Margaret Humphreys 1994 book EMPTY CRADLES. It composites characters and changes the timeline, but the sorrow and the anger of this amazing story is essentially the same.
ORANGES AND SUNSHINES runs for 105 minutes and opens in Australia on June 9, 2011. I rated it 3.5/5