By Brian Hall
Based on unbelievable true events, “Oranges and Sunshine” tells the story of Margaret Humphreys, portrayed here with grit and grace by Emily Watson.
Working as a social worker in the mid-1980’s in Nottingham, Humphreys stumbled upon a deportation scandal involving governments on two continents. Her first clue comes from an encounter with a random woman who asks for help piecing together her past. The woman can recall few details of her early childhood other than being taken from state care in the UK and being placed with other children on a ship headed for Australia.
Humphreys finds the facts hard to believe but after digging deeper discovers a decades long forced migration scheme where thousands of children, many as young as four-years-old, were in fact taken from UK state custody – in some cases being told that their parents had died – and being shipped to Australia with the promise of oranges and sunshine.
What they found instead was years of forced labor and physical and mental abuse. What starts as an unraveling mystery soon becomes a life’s work for Humphreys as she strives to reunite the now grown children with, in some cases, their still very-much-alive parents.
In a wise decision, the filmmakers refrain from flashbacks of the abuse and instead allow us to feel it viscerally through several powerful and respectful performances by actors playing adults recalling their lost childhood.
Two of the adults featured most prominently are played by Hugo Weaving and David Wenham. Weaving plays someone whose lack of identity has left him a kind but fragile man. Wenham, on the other hand, is someone who has turned his pain into obnoxious bravado. Both actors, however different their characters may be, give extraordinary performances where on the outside they exist as men, but behind their eyes are unmistakable glimpses of the hurt little boy that still exists within.
As for the storytelling itself, at times the movie can play a bit too matter-of-fact and a bit too often. No doubt hoping to preserve the integrity of the story by avoiding false scintillation, the script and direction don’t offer much more than simply laying out events and rolling the camera.
A scene where Humphreys and another character encounter threatening opposition in their pursuit for truth was a moment ripe for the audience to experience alongside with them – as movies allow us to do. It’s an event that evokes fear and ultimately bravery from a character who needed to be reminded how brave they already were and with some more cinematic styling, it could have drawn us further in. Instead, it’s executed matter-of-factly this happened, then it stopped. These choices certainly don’t hold back the power of the story, but it made the film feel more like a documentary featuring actors than a movie-going experience.
The story of Margaret Humphrey’s and these “lost” children is one that deserves to be told. In fact, it’s a story still unfolding today as evidenced by the postscript at the end of the film. The performances are powerful and honor the real people involved. That the film holds back on making it a more dynamic, cinematic experience, however, I suppose is both to its credit, as well as its occasional disservice.
“Oranges and Sunshine” opens Oct. 21 in Los Angeles and New York.