Oranges and Sunshine is the true story of Margaret Humphreys, a British social worker, who became involved in the ‘home children’ scandal; where during the 50s, 60s and as late as the 70s, children from poor families were packed off to the colonies, often without their parents’ consent. Promised new lives, they often found themselves in Canada and Australia, abused and put to work in farms and monasteries. At present, it is assumed that near to 7,000 people reside in Australia who were victims of various child migration schemes.
Starting off with an innocent request, Humphreys (Emily Blunt) soon finds herself in Western Australia helping people to reunite with their families back in England. In particular, the film focuses on Jack and Len, played by Hugo Weaving and David Wenham respectively. Jack; an oversized man-child who has been reunited with his sister, but really just wants his mother. Len; a typical rags to riches story who sees nothing wrong in returning to the monastery in which he was raised and beaten, to throw his weight around. All the leads are dependable in their roles, with Weaving certainly standing out as the bedraggled, down trodden Jack. Trying to forget everything that’s happened to him, now he has his sister back, Weaving is a heartbreaking portrayal of a childhood crushed.
Directed by Jim Loach, son of Ken, Oranges and Sunshine is, unsurprisingly, a very sombre affair. When one is talking about the exploitation of children, it’s hard to crack out the giggles. Now, the danger with such a topic is that one can be tempted to over egg the pudding. Lots of falling to your knees, throwing your head back and screaming ‘why?!’. However, Loach’s direction is restrained and his actors are subtle.
When the emotion does over-boil from the heat of the situation, it’s justified tears that sting the eyes. One of the most emotional scenes is the simple gesture of a mother giving her daughter the doll she bought 30 years previously. No words, no wailing. This lack of chest beating keeps everything grounded. The seriousness of the situation does not need to be heightened. You don’t add perfume to the rose, as they say.
If we had to find a problem, and I say IF, then there is the issue that the British and Australian governments do come across as a little bit one-dimensional; all Brazil-esque bureaucrats and stuffiness. However, this is a minor quibble. Oranges and Sunshine is a powerful, solid directorial debut by Loach, which sees the best of everyone shining through.