By Don Simpson | July 2, 2012
Director: Jim Loach
Writers: Rona Munro, Margaret Humphreys (book Empty Cradles)
Starring: Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham, Tara Morice, Aisling Loftus, Lorraine Ashbourne, Stuart Wolfenden, Richard Dillane, Molly Windsor, Russell Dykstra, Geoff Morrell
Set in Nottingham circa 1986, Oranges and Sunshine follows Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson), a social worker who uncovers a secret past in which Great Britain deported orphaned children — approximately 10,000 over a span of 20 years — to Australia. Humphreys begins to work with the deportees, who are middle-aged adults at this point, to help uncover their lost histories.
Of course the Great Britain and Australian government are not very happy about Humphreys’ persistent prying, so they try their darndest to make her research as difficult as possible. All the while, we observe as Humphreys struggles to reconcile the guilt she feels for enjoying her own happy and stable life. Additionally, Humphreys seems to absorb the inner torment and grief of her clients, which begins to fester inside of her like a cancer, thus plaguing her with recurring emotional breakdowns.
The film is at its strongest when Humphreys travels to an Australian orphanage that was built by the slave labor of many of her clients. The Christian Brothers who once beat and raped her clients are still there, enjoying their tea; otherwise the estate is like a ghost town. While she is there, Humphreys is haunted by the harrowing stories of her clients. This happens to be the one section of the narrative where the talking head testimonials (which are shown in flashbacks) are actually effective; otherwise, director Jim Loach’s over-reliance on Humphreys’ interviews seems like a lazy way to communicate the past to us.
Coming from the son of Ken Loach, it is somewhat surprising that the younger Loach would opt for such a clunky narrative approach to this story. This content is much too complex to rely solely upon talking heads to restate the past events. I am typically not a fan of prologues or flashbacks, but this is one instance that a more cinematic narrative strategy could have helped the film. It all just leaves me wondering what would Ken Loach have done?
Jim Loach does share one commonality with his father, and that is his sympathy for the struggle of the working-class. But that makes it all the more confusing once we realize that he never addresses one of the principal motives for the migration of the children: Australia wanted to increase its white population to alleviate the risk of its native population taking control of the government. That right there seems like something Loach’s father would have really wanted to address.
Oranges and Sunshine is now available in the United States on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of New Video.