After working exclusively in television for the past decade, Jim Loach, the son of renowned director Ken Loach, makes his feature film debut with Oranges and Sunshine, a social issue drama based on the expose of social worker Margaret Humphreys, here portrayed by Emily Watson. While Loach doesnâ€™t overdramatize the proceedings as one might predict a topic concerning children in an illegal migration scheme housed in poor conditions under religion based rule, his treatment does fall prey to the clichÃ© of the martyred whistleblower and reeks unforgivably of a thorough sanitation of the subject matter. The details surrounding child abuse are as buttoned up as Emily Watsonâ€™s wardrobe.
Concerning the illegal deportation of thousands of children from the United Kingdom to Australia from the late 1950â€™s to 1970 under a child migrant policy called Home Children, Loachâ€™s film begins in 1986 when social worker Humphreys picks up on the scandal. Single-handedly, with only the support from her understanding husband, Humphreys is able to work exclusively in Australia for a period of two years through her job, reuniting many adults with their families or real identities. Along the way, influential religious figures threaten her safety, government forces back home and abroad refuse to take responsibility for their actions and Humphreys herself begins to suffer from PTSD.
Humphreys develops close relationships with several people, including a man she reunites with his sister in England (Hugo Weaving) and an emotionally conflicted man (David Wenham) she manages to reunite with his mother. Culminating in an actual visit to one of the churches/homes the children were housed in, Humphreys acknowledges that there would be no great moment of catharsis for all these children and no great moment of recognition. And, in fact, the formal apologies of the Australian and the British Governments would not be issued until November 2009 and January 2010.
Thereâ€™s a rather dour and plodding atmosphere to Loachâ€™s film. While Watson gives a fine performance as a woman trying to do the right thing, weâ€™re told time and time again that the children are the focus of this story. Yet what snippets of details we do get are completely sanitized. The camera has to cut away from one man in the asylum, unable to even utter the word rape. Another man, whose confession to Humphreyâ€™s is told in a series of flashback snippets, whispers another cry about rape, so fleeting, you might have missed it. Thereâ€™s only one detailed conversation of harsh living conditions and not many more moments of personal details belonging to the people that lived through these ordeals. Instead, the unmitigated hero of this story is supposed to be Margaret Humphreyâ€™s, a woman who sacrifices her own family time to reunite thousands of others. Yes, Loach even gives us a scene where a woman at a Christmas celebration asks Humphreyâ€™s young son what he got everyone for the holiday. â€œI gave you my mother,â€ he says.
A social issue drama whose fangs have been removed, Oranges and Sunshine has little to offer in comparison to past or recent cinematic genre efforts, like this yearâ€™s The Whistleblower, which may be more violent but doesnâ€™t seem to cower in terror at the very real details it contends to highlight. But even the saccharine, happy-times title is an indication of the neutered quality Jim Loach was aiming for. In the transition from book to screen, Humphreyâ€™s book, the much more aptly titled â€œEmpty Cradlesâ€ became Oranges and Sunshine, something the children were promised once they reached Australia. â€˜Steada treated, they got tricked. Itâ€™s the hard knock life.