‘ 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