Oranges And Sunshine adapts the true story of Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham who, in the 80s, brought to light a scandalous process of child deportation supported by the British government. It is also the feature debut of Jim Loach, son of Ken.
Things begin slowly. We are introduced to Humphreys (Emily Watson) an everyday social worker who stumbles upon a remarkable and horrifying facet of recent British history. The film’s story is not one that I was familiar with and I imagine the same will be true of many people, including some who lived through the period, and as such it carries with it (or did for me, at least) a certain weight of revelation.
Given that the story is true, or based on truth, it seems a little silly to try to avoid ‘spoilers’ but if people don’t know the details, then it’s better to leave them untold. Suffice it to say that Humphreys uncovers a terrible, systematic deportation of young children to Australia, children who were lured there under promises of ‘oranges and sunshine’ and other such niceties. Jim Loach’s directorial style is by no means a carbon copy of his father’s, but it does share a similarly naturalist, no-frills-attached sort of aesthetic which suits the material well. His presence is so subtle that even beautiful shots of Australian countryside and sea views don’t seem glamourised at all.
It isn’t necessarily easy to get into. At first it seems a little austere, a little muddled, and there are one or two instances of laboured scripting that get in the way somewhat, for example in early scenes where Humpreys and her husband discuss, quite clearly so we can understand, exactly what it is they’re going to be doing. But luckily this doesn’t last too long. It takes a little while to settle in, but when it does it finds a pleasing rhythm. Watson, too, seems to grow in confidence in her role as things move along. By the end she is fully convincing as an ordinary citizen turned whistle-blower, and she crucially carries absolutely no hint of self-satisfaction about what her efforts are beginning to achieve.
The film brightens up – both visually and, to a certain extent, tonally – when Humphreys makes her way to Australia and sets up her Child Migrants Trust. It is in Australia, too, that Aussie actors David Wenham and Hugo Weaving are able to make an impression on things. Their supporting turns – as victims of the deportation scheme – are moving in different ways. Weaving is likable in his edgy role as Jack, a man who has never felt whole, and Wenham is excellent as Len, the deeply hurt man who has locked his emotions away inside. There is a beautiful moment towards the end when Len takes Margaret to visit the site of his childhood. At first his motives are unclear, but it becomes obvious after a time that he has suffered, and that, in a perverse way, he needs the outpouring of Margaret’s emotions to clarify the thoughts in his own head. It’s a subtle, nuanced performance that deserves credit.
As a depiction of real events, Loach’s film feels sincere without eulogising over the woman behind it all. The fact that Margaret Humphreys may well be deserving of praise is another matter – the film is sensible enough not to saint her before our eyes; we can decide to do that ourselves. It has a few dips here and there, and the first act is unfortunately the weakest, but overall this is a story worth telling, well told.