First seen taking a baby into protective care from a pleading mother, Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) ironically spends the rest of the movie on a quest to reunite adults who have been stripped of their identities with their families. Watson is a marvel of restraint, resolve and quiet outrage in the role.
Margaret’s mission begins when she learns of a secret longtime deportation scheme in which England sent massive numbers of poor children to Australia, where many were forced into child labor and otherwise abused. They were told their parents were dead, while the parents were told the children had been put up for adoption elsewhere in England.
Margaret initially is a model of businesslike British reserve, performing her duties with a certain stiff-upper-lip efficiency. When a member of an adoptee support group she runs mentions having a grown brother in Australia on the same 1986 night that Margaret is approached by an Australian woman desperate to find her mother, she begins investigating the situation. Appalled at the details she uncovers, she even flies Down Under using annual leave to meet with other victims.
Oranges and Sunshine begins as a whistleblower conspiracy mystery but becomes the personal journey of a woman who realizes her life’s calling is one that makes emotional detachment impossible. Watson is excellent at portraying Margaret’s struggle to maintain a family life with her husband and two children in England while spending much of her time in Australia, interviewing and befriending psychologically damaged survivors.
The scandal also involved the Christian Brothers Roman Catholic religious organization. Media revelations about sexual abuse of children and the slavery-like conditions in which they were forced to live cause a backlash by believers, leading to insults, threats and attacks against Margaret and her mission.
Hugo Weaving plays the subdued and sadly resigned Jack, separated at childhood from his sister and assured that Australia would be a place where the sun shines every day, he would ride a horse to school and he could pick oranges from a tree for breakfast. Like many other children, he also was untruthfully informed that his mother was dead. Now so depressed he has considered suicide, he is almost reluctant to pursue the truth about his background.
The movie’s wild card is Len (David Wenham), who is belligerently skeptical of Margaret’s competence and commitment. A former child deportee himself, he now is a successful businessman who has dealings with the Christian Brothers. His offer to take Margaret to the organization’s remote Bindoon Boys’ Town in the middle of the Western Australia nowhere leads to an unsettlingly suspenseful showdown with an unexpected outcome.
While parts of the true story have been dramatically enhanced, there’s no offensively blatant swelling-of-strings tearjerking that would undercut its seriousness. First-time feature director Jim Loach (son of Ken) even turns the camera away from one mother-and-son reunion when Margaret does the same, giving the characters their privacy. One of the movie’s most quietly affecting less-is-more scenes shows several grown deportees slowly gravitating toward Margaret at the gathering where she first mentions the possibility of finding their families.
Tastefully but compellingly written by Rona Munro, based on Margaret Humphreys’ book Empty Cradles, Oranges and Sunshine is a moving and memorable document about the difference one courageous woman has made in thousands of lives.
[Rating: 4 stars]