Oranges and Sunshine: No Child Left Behind

A Social Worker-Turned-Superhero Does It For The Kids.

There comes a time in a social worker’s life when trusting your own judgment may not be enough. For Margaret Humphreys, it came with the discovery that in order to cover up the shame and scandal of women who bore children out of wedlock during and following World War Two, the British government rounded up thousands of innocent toddlers and deported them to Australia. Devoting her life and career to opening up sealed records, pointing fingers at the guilty, exposing injustice and straightening out a tangled web of deceit that led to panic, confusion, family upheaval and years of depression in both children and parents, her efforts to repair damaged lives led to a controversial, best-selling book, “Empty Cradles”, which has now been adapted for the screen as Oranges and Sunshine. It’s uneven and flawed, but definitely worth seeing.

Emily Watson gives her usual fresh-faced and dedicated performance as the social worker from Nottingham who defied the government, searching court records, newspaper archives, and church files to expose the systematically organized abuse and indifference heaped on institutionalized children labeled degenerates. Told they were orphans with no one to care for them, thousands of children were rounded up and forced to migrate to Australia, where they were promised “oranges and sunshine”. Instead, they found only the lash and ended up sold into slavery by a respected organization of religious extremists called the Christian Brothers. Decades later, Mrs. Humphreys, in her efforts to locate them and reunite them with their lost families, was so overwhelmed by the volume of victimized parents and displaced children, now adults, that she established the Child Migrants Trust without any hope or expectations of help from the British government. Appeasing the press and trying to save face with the outraged public, officials insisted the abuses must be placed in the proper historical context. What was done, they suggested, was done with good intentions, to give disenfranchised children “a fresh start in life”. What Mrs. Humphreys demanded was government responsibility for separating these discarded remnants of the empire from their families and robbing them of their identities. The movie does a masterful job of showing the effect of abandonment on bewildered children and the emptiness in their hearts, morphing into lifetime depression. And it shows the toll so much courage and focus took on Mrs. Humphreys herself—neglecting her own family (one man’s memories of being raped at Christmas even leads to her near cancellation of the holiday season in her own home), endangering her health, and risking her life when Australians defending the Christian Brothers tried to murder her.

Her obsession eventually paid off. In February, 2010, while Oranges and Sunshine was shooting, British prime minister Gordon Brown formally apologized to each and every one of the 130,000 children whose cries for help went unheeded as the U.K. turned its back on them. The damage is done, the wounds will never heal. But progress has finally been made. Some of Mrs. Humphreys’ “clients” have become lifelong friends and supporters of her cause. Hugo Weaving is excellent as a man who gives so much of himself but too late to find his mother still living. Richard Dillane is sturdy and compassionate as Mrs. Humphreys’ loyal, compassionate husband Merv, who helps her balance her priorities and hold on to her fragile sanity. And David Wenham adds a calm reserve of strength as a cynical, rugged Australian alpha male who finds his mother still alive, then overcomes his childhood pain to rebuild the wasted years. There’s one powerful scene where he takes Mrs. Humphreys to the Christian Brothers “boys home” near Perth built by child labor, where so much of the torment took place, and forces them to pour her a cup of tea. Later, they stand on a hill overlooking the property, awed that a place of such inhuman cruelty could be so beautiful. It’s one of the few moments when Emily Watson is allowed to show frailty or tears. Most of the time she’s too controlled to display emotion and the film suffers from it.

As a complex look at adoption, the film reminded me of Blossoms in the Dust and Greer Garson’s noble performance as Edna Gladney, the legendary crusader who changed the adoption laws in Texas. If only Ms. Watson had displayed some of that emotional longitude this movie might be more touching. In his first feature, director Jim Loach shows a lot of the social upheaval in the U.K. pioneered by the films of his father, veteran director Ken Loach. But the style is so muted it fails to consistently hold attention. It also fails to show what possessed Mrs. Humphreys to neglect her own children in order to repatriate total strangers. The dialogue in Rona Munro’s script is a bit too research heavy to feel like anything outside of a filing cabinet. What Emily Watson says is artificial instead of raw, and she never demonstrates anger over her country’s sins. None of the story flashes back in time to the years when the deportations actually happened. It is stubbornly set in 1986 Nottingham and the Australian outback, when a shot of the terrifying sea voyage that carried the children to another world might have given it the feeling of a docudrama it often misses. But if larger truths have been overlooked, the subject is still wrenching enough to make Oranges and Sunshine an inspired work of dignity and purpose.

rreed@observer.com

ORANGES AND SUNSHINE

Running Time 105 minutes

Written by Rona Munro, Margaret Humphries (book)

Directed by Jim Loach

Starring Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, and David Wenham

3/4