It must be challenging to make a film that spreads awareness about an important issue while still adhering to the traditional cinematic narrative conventions that are necessary to maintain dramatic interest. In Oranges and Sunshine, a UK/Australia co-production, director Jim Loach and writer Rona Munro get the balance right. The issue they depict is the shameful deportation of an estimated 7000 children from the UK to Australia from 1912 to 1970. The children were often sent without the consent or knowledge of their parents. As one of the former child migrant characters says, they were promised oranges and sunshine, but once in Australia they were used for cheap labour and many were abused.
Instead of being set during the 1940s or 1950s, when the majority of the child migration occurred, Oranges and Sunshine is set during the late 1980s and follows the work done by English social worker Margaret Humphreys, played by Emily Watson in the film. Margaret’s investigation into the scheme, while she worked at reuniting lost family members, provides a perfect narrative structure for the audience to learn about what happened at the same time that she does. We share not only her furious disbelief at the exploitation and injustice, but also her drive to find out more.
Loach’s restrained direction and excellent casting allows the film to express how the scheme affected people’s lives without it ever becoming melodramatic or sentimental. The film is understated without ever being obtuse so that the audience gets an impression of the harm done to many of the children without it being unnecessarily laboured. The main two former child migrant characters whom Margaret works with are both men of a similar age; Jack played by Hugo Weaving and Len played by David Wenham. While loosely based on real people Jack and Len are composite characters used to represent two of the broadly different types of responses Margaret encountered. Both have damaged souls, but while Jack is quiet and fragile, Len is aggressively defensive. As the three leads Watson, Weaving and Wenham are uniformly excellent, but in one of Weaving’s key scenes he delivers what is possibly his finest performance to date.
Towards the end of Oranges and Sunshine Margaret warns Len not to expect some kind of cathartic moment that will neatly resolve or vindicate his experiences. This echoes the sentiments of the real life Margaret Humphreys who regards her work in finding missing family members and campaigning for an enquiry as simply part of her on-going day job. To the credit of the film, it doesn’t undermine Margaret’s sentiments by concluding with a traditional moment of narrative closure, and yet it does provide a climatic final scene that validates Margaret’s work up until that point. It’s a deft touch to provide a scene that is so dramatically satisfying without betraying the overall idea that the story is not done yet.
With Oranges and Sunshine Jim Loach has announced himself a distinctive cinematic voice who is able to handle complex and difficult subject matter with sensitivity and skill. His film functions as both entertainment and as a piece of social awareness that goes beyond the confines of the cinema. Perhaps most impressive is that in an era where popular culture is rediscovering and reinterpreting so many superhero narratives, Oranges and Sunshine highlights the work of a real life hero. Margaret Humphreys may not have superpowers but amid all the cynicism and feelings of powerlessness in the world, her courage and determination against a great injustice is truly inspiring.