Oranges and Sunshine

Jim Loach, son of Ken Loach and previously only known for TV series Shameless and being, well, the son of Ken Loach – is a boy done good. In adapting Margaret Humphrey’s 1996 novel Empty Cradles he has managed to bypass clichéd sentimentality in favour of a striking feature that will leave a lump in your throat.

Margaret Humphreys (Watson) is a tireless English social worker, dealing with fraught situations such as removing a baby from a hysterical young mother’s care, and counselling adults who had been adopted. A chance meeting with an Australian woman leads to the discovery that hundreds of thousands of English children were removed from care-homes or ‘unfit’ mothers and deported to Australia, where they were forced into hard labour at a very young age and suffered physical and sexual abuse. In Margaret’s attempts to blow the whistle on this event, she comes up against the religious sect that took the children in, and both the British and Australian governments.

The actors are mostly recognizable; Emily Watson from Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, Hugo Weaving from The Matrix and David Wenham from Lord of the Rings, but they are sufficiently under the public radar for the viewer to immerse themselves in the story rather than a performance.

Emily Watson is outstanding, showing the intense emotional pressure that social workers face on a daily basis. When Margaret refuses to accept her diagnosis of post-traumatic stress, her doctor tells her, “you’re absorbing all these people’s pain…you’re feeling it for them.” She is attacked from every angle; accused of desertion by her own children, harassed by the Christian Brothers who cared for the children, and told by government officials to keep her nose out of what she knows nothing about.

Though the Brothers and their proponents insist that the Christian organization was committing a noble act in taking these kids, interviews with the now-grown orphans take a different view. The endless interactions between Margaret and the inhabitants of the institution as they recall abuse and unimaginable pain could feel all too much, but Loach breaks up the grief by developing the relationships between Margaret, Jack and Len.

The film could have so easily given the friendships romantic overtures to dial up the drama factor, but instead focuses on platonic friendships that become truly intimate without romance. The marriage of Margaret and her husband Merv (Richard Dillane) is steadfast and loving, a welcome respite from the emotional outpourings that the rest of the film induces.

The cinematography subtly adds to the content of the film, the dead grass and rocky plains of Australia emphasizing the isolation felt by the orphans. A particularly outstanding scene takes place at Bindoon, the remote Catholic orphanage run by the Christian Brothers. As Margaret nears the imposing mansion, she sees Stations of the Cross planted along the dusty red road, of which Len remarks, “We built those Stations of the Cross…who was really crucified?” It is a chilling reminder of the abuse suffered in the name of religion.

Oranges and Sunshine had social ramifications; while it was filming, both the Australian and and British authorities apologized to the thousands of children that had been displaced. A film that can induce an apology from no less than two nations’ governments is a special thing indeed, and Oranges and Sunshine proves that an issue film can be more than self-indulgent propaganda.

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