FOR­GOT­TEN CHIL­DREN

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

‘ IWANT to know who I am,’’ a dis­traught woman says in Or­anges and Sun­shine. It could be a line from Source Code. Emily Wat­son, who plays the in­ves­tiga­tive hero­ine, re­ceives threat­en­ing phone calls. One night, alone at home, she flees in ter­ror when a crazed in­truder bat­ters on her win­dow. Soon her hair starts fall­ing out. To judge from its ti­tle, Or­anges and Sun­shine hardly seems a hor­ror film, but there are mo­ments when it feels like one. And in this film the hor­rors are real.

Di­rected by Jim Loach, Or­anges and Sun­shine is a Bri­tish-Aus­tralian co­pro­duc­tion about the en­forced de­por­ta­tion to Aus­tralia of thou­sands of Bri­tish chil­dren in care. Ac­cord­ing to the film’s pro­duc­ers, more than 130,000 chil­dren were brought to Aus­tralia to be reared in char­i­ta­ble in­sti­tu­tions. This went on for sev­eral decades dur­ing the mid-20th cen­tury (the last ar­rival was in 1970) un­der a pro­gram sup­ported by Bri­tish and Aus­tralian gov­ern­ments.

Chil­dren were sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies at birth; brothers and sis­ters were parted on ar­rival. Dur­ing their years in care they were forced into man­ual labour and there were many cases of phys­i­cal and sex­ual abuse. Loach’s film tells this story through the eyes of Mar­garet Humphreys, a Bri­tish so­cial worker whose in­ves­ti­ga­tions helped unite many sep­a­rated fam­i­lies and whose book, Empty Cra­dles (the ba­sis of Rona Munro’s screen­play), did much to bring the scan­dal to pub­lic at­ten­tion.

How can any film come to terms with suf­fer­ing on this scale? Usu­ally we pre­fer not to know. Dirty linen from a nation’s past is rarely a recipe for box-of­fice suc­cess. It took the French a long time to con­front the re­al­ity of French col­lab­o­ra­tion in World War II. Rab­bit-Proof Fence, the first Aus­tralian film about the Stolen Gen­er­a­tions, ap­peared more than a half cen­tury af­ter the West Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment be­gan en­forc­ing its racial poli­cies. Our great­est mil­i­tary tragedy fi­nally made it to the screen in 1981, in Peter Weir’s Gal­lipoli. There have been no great films about the hor­rors of con­vict trans­porta­tion or the bru­tal­i­ties of early Bri­tish set­tle­ment. Per­haps one day there will be a film about our treat­ment of asy­lum-seek­ers and the in­car­cer­a­tion of chil­dren in desert camps. How long should we wait?

In Or­anges and Sun­shine, Loach takes two or three char­ac­ters and tells their sto­ries more in sor­row than in anger. Hold­ing ev­ery­thing to­gether is Wat­son’s lu­mi­nous per­for­mance as Humphreys, who first learned of the scan­dal when a woman ac­costed her in a Not­ting­ham street one win­ter’s night in 1986 and asked for help in trac­ing her fam­ily. Char­lotte Cooper was four when she was put on a ship with hun­dreds of other chil­dren and sent to Aus­tralia. Humphreys at first can’t be­lieve her. But, her cu­rios­ity roused, she be­gins mak­ing in­quiries, search­ing through ar­chives and ask­ing ques­tions at Aus­tralia House in Lon­don, where she gets a frosty re­cep­tion.

‘‘ Why don’t you ask your own gov­ern­ment?’’ one of­fi­cial replies, not un­rea­son­ably. And of course she does, meet­ing sim­i­lar bar­ri­ers of ob­struc­tion and in­dif­fer­ence. But she keeps fol­low­ing leads, mov­ing be­tween Bri­tain and Aus­tralia and at­tract­ing me­dia at­ten­tion. Hun­dreds of peo­ple write to her seek­ing help. An anx­ious fel­low, Jack (Hugo Weav­ing), takes her to an in­sti­tu­tion where he and other chil­dren were reared. Like many chil­dren, Jack was told his par­ents had died. An­other of Humphreys’s con­fi­dants, Len (David Wen­ham), was told a dif­fer­ent story — that his mother had aban­doned him — but he’s never given up hope of find­ing her. Sus­pi­cious and hos­tile at first, Len comes to re­spect Humphreys and sup­port her cause. In a chill­ing scene he takes her to a dock­side ware­house in Perth where chil­dren were sorted: brothers this way, sis­ters that way. Len’s ar­ro­gance and bravado are his shield from mem­o­ries such as these.

At the heart of these bro­ken lives, with their lone­li­ness, their love­less­ness, their drudgery, is a ter­ri­ble ig­no­rance. It’s the spir­i­tual void that prompted Char­lotte’s plea — ‘‘ I want to know who I am’’ — or Jack’s lament: ‘‘ There’s an empti­ness in me. I thought the only thing that could fill it was my mother.’’ But these amor­phous long­ings, these deep un­fo­cused fears, are hard to drama­tise. We sense the film­maker’s dif­fi­culty. Loach’s tone is mea­sured and re­strained, even cau­tious. And be­cause the story had its ori­gins in two coun­tries, we have no con­sis­tent sense of time and place. Most of Or­anges and Sun­shine was shot in South Aus­tralia, but the tone is Bri­tish. The writer, lead­ing ac­tor and di­rec­tor are Bri­tish. Loach (son of the Bri­tish so­cial re­al­ist di­rec­tor Ken Loach) has worked mainly in Bri­tish tele­vi­sion.

Ev­ery­thing de­pends on a great cen­tral per­for­mance, and Wat­son never lets us down. She’s on record as say­ing she avoided meet­ing Humphreys be­fore mak­ing the film, and it’s pos­si­ble the women bear lit­tle phys­i­cal re­sem­blance. But we get a pow­er­ful im­pres­sion of pluck, dogged­ness and com­pas­sion. Only af­ter­wards did it strike me that for much of the film Wat­son has lit­tle to say. There are no in­dig­nant speeches, no pity­ing out­bursts of emo­tion. Ev­ery­thing is con­veyed in that calm, un­smil­ing gaze, those silent, search­ing stares.

Wen­ham and Weav­ing give brave sup­port but Wat­son’s skills are daz­zling. Sharp words, con­sol­ing words, are there when needed. Her put-down of of­fi­cial­dom at a meet­ing in Lon­don is among the film’s best mo­ments. But much more is con­veyed by her si­lences. One night, in a fit of sor­row and anger, she trashes her Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions at home and we sense a bit­ter­ness, a sad­ness be­yond words.

As var­i­ous char­ac­ters are al­lowed to re­mind us, it was done with the best of in­ten­tions. Great fol­lies usu­ally are. At one Catholic in­sti­tu­tion an an­gry re­cep­tion­ist turns on Humphreys with the words: ‘‘ We found lov­ing Chris­tian homes for these chil­dren.’’

One doesn’t doubt many chil­dren were brought up with lov­ing care. But if Aus­tralia was the promised land of or­anges and sun­shine for a lucky few, it was a place of de­spair for count­less oth­ers. The ev­i­dence was con­vinc­ing enough for Bri­tish and Aus­tralian gov­ern­ments to make for­mal apolo­gies to the vic­tims in 2009. Yet we never feel their an­guish. Loach’s film is a vic­tim of its own de­cency, its ret­i­cence. A more cal­cu­lat­ing film would have saved the big emo­tional mo­ments for the end; those long-sought re­unions and awak­en­ings might have de­liv­ered a more pow­er­ful cli­max. Len’s epiphany isn’t seen.

All this gives Or­anges and Sun­shine its grace and in­tegrity, but it robs it of nar­ra­tive drive. At some deep level it lacks the pas­sion and en­ergy Humphreys brought to her task. When, near the end of the film, she finds her way to Bin­doon, a Chris­tian Brothers in­sti­tu­tion in WA where many trans­ported chil­dren were reared, she en­ters a cav­ernous din­ing hall to con­front a dozen or so brothers in cler­i­cal garb. It’s like a scene from a ta­pes­try or a re­li­gious paint­ing.

The brothers are too an­gry or em­bar­rassed to speak. ‘‘ Have I fright­ened you?’’ Humphreys asks them. The awk­ward­ness and un­cer­tainty of the mo­ment seem typ­i­cal of the film as a whole. For all the strength and beauty of Wat­son’s per­for­mance, the film never moves us as it should. Great sub­jects, as we know, are no guar­an­tee of great films.

From left, Harvey Scrimshaw, Tara Morice, Hugo Weav­ing, Lor­raine Ash­bourne and Emily Wat­son in a scene from Or­anges and Sun­shine

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