Decency is often much harder to swing than heroism or conventional success. And to keep plugging away at it without recognition or reward is not just awe-inspiring but truly humbling. “Oranges and Sunshine” highlights such an act of decency.
Directed by Jim Loach, it lays bare the facts of a virtually unknown government-engineered atrocity: From the late 19th century to 1970, Britain migrated tens of thousands of children to Australia and other countries to use as cheap labor. These children, promised year-round sunshine and oranges to pick off the trees for breakfast, were told by authorities that their mothers were dead and they had nowhere else to go but across the ocean. Once in Australia they were placed in institutions, most of them Catholic or Christian. Many were physically or sexually abused. All were made to engage in heavy labor for little or no pay.
It wasn’t until 1986 that a social worker in Nottingham named Margaret Humphreys flew from the U.K. to break the news to some of these migrants that their mothers hadn’t died, and they had been the victims of a serious wrongdoing. Humphreys initially had no knowledge of this dastardly historical policy.
One day, Margaret (played here by a superb Emily Watson) comes into contact with an Australian woman suffering from severe mental strain because she “has no idea” of who she really is or where she came from. After listening to this woman pour out her confusion and pain, Margaret checks up on her past. And this leads her to unravel a huge, tangled mass of lies, fabricated records, endless red tape and bureaucratic rigmarole, all pointing to a systematic displacement of the children of parents deemed unable to provide adequate care.
Margaret’s attempts to locate and then reunite these “orphans” with their families meet with brick-wall resistance at every tier of the social-services system. The very fact that Margaret is a social worker employed by the state makes for a particularly ruthless double-edged blade: The British government treats her as a traitor out to make trouble and smear its reputation; the orphans she talks to are mistrustful and suspicious of her motives.
Loach’s depiction of Humphreys, whose overriding trait was an infinite capacity for compassion, is understated and sincere. Humphreys is no super-heroine in the “Erin Brockovich” mold. Cleavage, tight jeans and fantastic hair? Cute babies cuddled in her arms as she storms baddie corporate headquarters? It’s not that kind of film.
Margaret appears throughout in brown tweed suits with her dark hair plaited at the back. She wears clunky but sensible shoes, even on an Australian beach crowded with buff surfers. Her life is an ordered but frenzied cycle of incredible hard work and endless chores. In short, she’s your overworked mom next door, struggling to maintain the career/life/family thing and retain some measure of personal sanity at the same time.
As she trudges home after a long day, both arms weighed down with grocery bags, you wonder how she can muster the energy to help others, much less take on the mind-blowing task of reuniting so-called orphans — now middle-aged — with the families they hadn’t seen in decades.
Jim Loach is the son of Ken Loach, the British director whose social conscience is prevalent in every film he makes, and who remains one of England’s most prolific and masterful storytellers. Though Jim had already followed in Loach Sr.’s footsteps as a director, his terrain so far had been TV (“Coronation Street,” “Holby City”).
He comes into his own with “Oranges and Sunshine.” Though it is exactly the kind of material his dad has always striven to bring to the screen, Jim’s filming style is distinctly different: He pitches the emotional level somewhere between quietly enraged and quietly hopeful and never gets as close or personal with his characters.
Carefully avoiding making a manipulative play for the tear ducts, Loach inserts a couple of scenes that stress that the tragedy is not considered as such by every “victim.” Some of the migrants tell Margaret that they are “probably better off” for being separated from their mothers, or that they had come to embrace Australia as home.
During filming, both the Australian and British governments issued apologies to the thousands of trafficked children still living and dealing with their past. Apparently, this is the first time a single film has wielded such an influence. But while “sorry” can be a strong word, it’s as unlikely to bring closure to those whisked away as a bucketful of oranges or a lifetime of sunshine.