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:: Oranges & Sunshine

From Academy award winning producers of The King’s Speech and Rabbit Proof Fence comes an eye-opening British/Australian drama based on the deportation of thousands of British orphans to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. The film is inspired by the true story of British social worker Margaret Humphries’ (Emily Watson, Angela’s Ashes) who researched hundreds of cases of British children who were seized from their home towns and shipped off to Australia, the land of ‘oranges and sunshine’ and will make you question our nation’s already questionable history for the mistreatment of misplaced children.

The film starts out in Nottingham on a dreary afternoon in 1986. After chairing a regular support group of depression sufferers, Margaret hurries to get home to her husband and two children when she is approached by a rather distressed Australian woman, Charlotte, claiming to to be on the search for her real name and birth date. She corners Humphries in an out-of-context and rather dinky-die Australian voice, “All I know for certain is that I was born in Nottingham… no parents, no guardians, just a couple of hundred children shipped off to Australia”.

With little belief that she can be of service, Margaret does not exactly jump out of her skin to help Charlotte, that is until to her bemusement, a woman in the support group named Nicky, claims her brother Jack (Hugo Weaving, The Lord of The Rings) was shipped off to Australia on a boat around the same time as Charlotte was deported. Margaret immediately smells a rat and is convinced there is somehow more than just a coincidence at play.

So she pulls up her sleeves and begins fishing for information into the birth and deportation records of both Charlotte and Nicky’s brother Jack. Yet when her questions to Australia House in London go unanswered, she finds within herself what seems to be divine inspiration and launches a fully-fledged investigation into not only the records of the former, but of the collective records of the ‘hundreds’ of supposed children for whom are yet to be accounted.

By the stroke of a miracle, the social worker tracks down Charlotte’s mother Sarah and sets up a first-time meeting between the mother and daughter. This scene is one of the more tense in the film when Charlotte does not receive her mother well, not out of spite but as a result of the sheer magnitude of injustice that has been bestowed upon her very existence and identity. Yet it is the awkwardness of scenes like these that brings plausibility to the messy and unresolved quest for the children of the child deportation schemes in the mid twentieth century.

Margaret continues her work of reuniting lost relatives by accompanying Nicky all the way to Melbourne, Australia where they meet Jack. Weaving is thoroughly convincing in his portrayal of Jack; a broken man who never got the opportunity to know his own mother and therefore his true identity.

A particularly confronting moment for me as a viewer is the scene where Jack and Margaret take a stroll along an orange-tinged Aussie beach as Jack ponders mystery surrounding the mass deportations of British children, “Why has no-one ever hear about it?” He and Margaret have clearly built a trust relationship and the intimacy that only a social worker and a lost child can share is obvious as laments to her, “I hate Mother’s Day. I get the same feeling every year like someone is twisting a knife inside of me… how can you talk about someone who you have been told never existed”.

It’s hard to resist a deep feeling of sympathy as he tells of being put on anti-depressants and later experiencing a divorce, “There is an emptiness in me and I think the only thing that could fill it is my mother”. But then you are left feeling a deep sense of anger as he describes the lies that were fed to him as a small child by deportation officials all those years ago, “… a man told me that my mother was dead and that I might as well go to Australia where they pick oranges off the trees for breakfast and the sun shines every day”.

In fact we learn later in the film that Jack’s mother was alive and well when he was seized from his home and all that met him in Australia was hard labour and abuse by the mission who took him in. And of course, this was the truth for man of the thousands of deprted children.

One of the main missions who took in male orphans are of course, the Christian Brothers. Margaret is told of horrific stories of little boys as young as five years of age being forced into slave labour and often molested or even raped in the care of this Christian mission. Margaret continues her hard work to uncover the truth behind the Christian Brothers and raises a public profile both in Britain and Australia in an effort to gain support for her recently established organisation, The Child Migrants Trust. But things turn nasty when church followers make death threats to Margaret and threaten her physical safety.

Her main client, Len (David Wenham, Australia, 300) a tough-nut to crack, is a victim of the Christian Brothers’ physical and sexual abuse. When Margaret first starts helping Len find his mother, he is rude and brash. Yet as time develops, he gains a deep sense of trust in Margaret - the same kind of trust we see timid Jack instill in the social worker. Len implores Margaret to face the Christian Brothers at their Bindoon mission in the West Australian outback. At first she refuses out of the fear of death threats but Len convinces her on the grounds that the Christian Brothers will have her beat if she cannot face them after all of the publicity that her work has stirred up. So she goes.

I would argue that the scene between Margaret Humphries and the Christian brothers as they sit opposite each other in an elaborate dining hall is one of the most poignant I have seen in film. Not one of the priests dare speak to Margaret whilst she summons each of them with the glance of an eye. It is one of Watson’s most stunning career performances as she deplores this group of treacherous men of God, “Have I disturbed you Brothers? Have I frightened you? What have you to be frightened of? Grown men like you”. Understandably Margaret grows flustered on exiting the mission. She tells Len of her frustration at the not being able to reinstate the wrongs of the past for all of the lost children, “Everybody thinks that theres gonna be this big cathartic moment went all the wounds are healed and all the wrongs are righted but that’s not gonna happen”.

But it is when Len stands head-on with her and states, “Your fighting for us Margaret… you’re on our side… what you’re doing is enough… it’s more than anyone else has ever given me” that the viewer is offered a chance of ultimate faith in her inspired plight for the truth. Like all films with grit, Oranges and Sunshine will make you reconsider the importance of trust and identity not only in your own life but in the social fabric of your own country.

DVD Extras

Audio commentary with Director, Jim Loach and Writer, Rona Munro
Stolen Childhoods Families Restored - A nation says ‘Sorry’
Interviews with Emily Watson and Hugo Weaving
Q+A at the British Film Institute Photo Gallery