Oranges and Sunshine (review)

Righting Wrongs, Just a Little

Hilarious true story. You’ll love this. In the 20th century, up until as late as 1970, thousands and thousands and thousands of British children were forcibly deported to Australia (as well as to New Zealand, Rhodesia, and Canada), where they were herded into group homes or other institutions, treated like slave labor, and subject to regular physical and sexual abuse on top of the emotional abuse of being ripped from their families, their homes, their country. These children weren’t orphans, though they were told they were — some had been placed into care by stigmatized single mothers who were given no other option, yet who intended to return for them; others had been removed from mothers who were prostitutes or other “undesirable” types.

No one knew about this. Or, at least, those who did were keeping their mouths shut. And then, in 1986, Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys was handed a few loose threads of this terrible tale, and she started to put it all together…

That’s where the deeply enraging Oranges and Sunshine begins, and yet before it’s over it becomes the kind of powerfully inspirational story that saves you from total despair over the unconscionable things that humans can do to each other — and especially over the cruelty of the powerful toward the vulnerable — by reminding us that for all the evil individuals of our species can do, there’s a whole helluva lot of good that others manage to eke out, too. Of course, most of that good usually ends up being a reaction to that evil, a cleaning up of the mess the pitiless leave in their wake. But ya gotta grab hope where you can.

The wonderful Emily Watson (Synecdoche, New York, The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep) is Humphreys here, and she is a solid, implacable presence as a practical woman who brooks no nonsense in the course of her work. At first she scoffs at the Australian woman who comes to see her: this stranger is at the end of her rope, and Humphreys is her last chance to figure out where she came from. All she remembers is being a small child on a big boat with a bunch of other kids all alone together, and all she has to prove where she came from is a Nottingham birth certificate. Humphreys snorts that the woman must be mistaken, children would never be sent off en masse like that with no adult minders or anything. But then she hears a similar story from a woman in one of her adoption therapy groups, about the long-lost brother she’d just found who’d been sent to Australia as a kid…

Oranges and Sunshine plays out, in part, like a mystery, as Humphreys, tenacious woman that she is, follows these faint trails to uncover a hidden tragedy. (And though you’d be hard-pressed to determine from, say, the clothing and hairstyles onscreen that this is not taking place today, the nature of Humphreys’ investigations — all quiet libraries and dusty storerooms of paper records — is a startling reminder of how recently in the past electronic research was not an option. Humphreys can’t Google anything!) But mostly it’s a vigorously humanist drama — first-time feature director Jim Loach in following in the footsteps of his legendary filmmaker father, Ken Loach, then — as Humphreys journeys to Australia to meet the adults those migrant children have become, to gather whatever meager information they may have about themselves — many have no birth certificates; some had had their names changed — and begin the next stage of the investigations: finding the families they lost in the U.K.

This isn’t a story about process but about people: how Humphreys goes about her work is less important than who she meets along the way. Like Jack (Hugo Weaving: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, The Wolfman), the aforementioned long-lost brother, who is desperate to find the mother he has faint memories of (he was 10 when he was deported, and the adult sister he’d just found had been adopted away, so their mother was lost to them). And Len (David Wenham: Public Enemies, Australia), whose initial suspicions of Humphreys and her motives only very slowly give way to a reluctant exploration of his own past, which is more horrific than he is willing to concede.

Humphreys finds herself deeply affected in unexpected ways by the stories she hears from these former migrants, and from the pushback that comes from the still-powerful establishment that would rather their dark pasts remain shrouded in ignorance. It is infuriating to hear some of Humphreys’ detractors insist that she’s wrong to, say, upset elderly priests today by reminding them of the sadistic abuses they once doled out to their defenseless charges. (You knew the Catholic Church would be complicit here in some way, didn’t you?) But Rona Munro’s screenplay avoids all sense of the melodramatic to show us everything through Humphreys’ blunt perspective, as a woman who takes on this tough job of reuniting families long separated and healing old wounds as best as can be done simply because it needs doing.

Even better: there’s none of the tarting up that sometimes it seems even true stories get bogged down under. Humphreys does not have to fight her boss for time to devote to this Important Cause; Humphreys’ husband doesn’t threaten to leave and take the kids because she’s spending all her time in Australia these days; Humphreys doesn’t have an affair with one of those lost sad migrants while she’s all alone on the other side of the planet. She just does the work, and gets it done, and swallows the impact on herself, and doesn’t even get to witness the happy reunions. Because mostly those reunions don’t happen… or they happen, but they’re not happy. Oranges and Sunshine is not about making us feel better about a terrible thing. It’s just about the terrible thing itself, and the very small efforts that can be done to make a small part of the terribleness right — or less wrong — again.

See Child Migrants Trust for more info on the secret migrations.

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