Emily Watson discovers the sordid truth in "Oranges and Sunshine"

During the hundred years between 1870 and 1970 the British government deported over 100,000 children to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Rhodesia. Driven by the misguided Victorian notion that the children of the poor and misbegotten were better off getting a fresh start in foreign climes, this cruel and often arbitrary policy was especially welcomed by the Australian government, eager in the post-World War II years to maintain that country’s white majority (until the mid 1970s it was virtually impossible for non-whites to emigrate to the land down under). Charities such as Dr. Barnardo’s were active and compliant co-conspirators, their grassroots contacts with the underclass offering a rich source of raw pioneer stock.

Set in England and Australia during the late 1980s, Oranges and Sunshine (currently playing at the Albany Twin) examines this bizarre experiment in social engineering through the eyes of Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson), a Nottingham social worker specializing in post-adoption support for adults. Initially unconvinced by an Australian woman’s story of transportation to the other side of the globe, Margaret changes her mind when she hears a similar tale from client Nicky (Lorraine Ashbourne), who relates her late-in-life reunion with younger brother Jack decades after his deportation to the Antipodes.

Her interest piqued, Margaret determines to learn more, but without Wikipedia or Google (remember, this is the ‘80s), researching the events of forty years ago proves a time consuming and labor intensive process. A trip to Australia and a meeting with Jack (Hugo Weaving), however, provides confirmation that thousands of British children had indeed been taken from their biological parents, shipped ten thousand miles, and placed in the care of back of beyond children’s homes, where they frequently served as little more than slave labor until reaching adulthood.

There are points in Oranges and Sunshine—especially in the early going—where one suspects they’re in for a fairly typical (and not particularly special) piece of kitchen sink realism, but Rona Munro’s well-paced screenplay (adapted from the real-life Humphrey’s memoir “Empty Cradles”) provides the story with a satisfying and surprisingly powerful climax.

The cast is also a strength, with especial kudos to Watson (who—let’s be honest—always looks like she’s about to burst into tears), Weaving, and David Wenham as fellow child migrant Len, who has gained his own measure of revenge against the Christian Brothers, the order in remote Western Australia that took in—and abused—many of the so-called Home Children. If the film has a weakness, it’s Lisa Gerrard’s treacly and anodyne score—there are moments when silence would have served the film better than over-emotive music—but that’s a minor complaint.

If you’ve seen 2002’s The Magdalene Sisters, Peter Mullan’s searing indictment of Ireland’s cruel treatment of wayward girls and loose women, you’ll find Oranges and Sunshine treading similar ground. Not so much a story of survival, however, as one of healing and recovery, it’s a little less acerbic than its predecessor—and ever so slightly lighter in tone. If you’d like to learn more about Humphrey’s work, visit the Child Migrants Trust website.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...