Oranges and Sunshine, 104 mins, rated M, opens in cinemas 9 June 2011.

(This is a slightly longer version of my review as  published in the June 2011 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)


Nearly 20 years ago, the ABC and the BBC co-produced a TV movie called The Leaving of Liverpool (Michael Jenkins, 1992). It told the story of two children who were sent by the British Government to live in Australia after World War II. It was a powerful film that introduced many of us for the first time to the plight of the “child migrants”.

Now there’s a new film on the same topic, but told from a different angle. Oranges and Sunshine is the story of Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham, who gradually uncovered the great social scandal of the forced migration of British children, sent by the authorities away from their unfit (unwed?) mothers, to a new life in Australia. They were promised oranges and sunshine, but instead most got harsh treatment in children’s homes. Incredibly, 130,000 child deportees were sent to Australia this way, from the 19th century until 1970, mostly during the 1950s and 60s.

While this film was still in production, in 2009, these former child migrants, state wards and foster children received an apology from Prime Minister Rudd, on behalf of Australia. Later, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a similar apology on behalf of the British Government.

Oranges and Sunshine has a good pedigree: it is directed by British filmmaker Jim Loach, son of Ken Loach. The scriptwriter is Rona Munro, who wrote Loach Snr’s Ladybird Ladybird (1994). Jim Loach comes from a career in TV to this, his first feature film. Although this film is about a social evil, it is not a “Ken Loach film”.

Margaret Humphreys’ own book about the child migrants, Empty Cradles (1996), tells many stories about the children she helped, in their adulthood, to find their families. Screenwriter Munro decided that it would be better to concentrate on Margaret’s story: how one woman brought worldwide attention to this shocking abuse of human rights, how she helped to reunite thousands of families, and the toll this took on her physical and emotional health. This simplifies matters, but putting Margaret’s story in the foreground has another effect, which I’ll come back to.

Playing Margaret is Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves, 1996, Hilary and Jackie, 1998, Cold Souls, 2009). She gives a fine performance as a practical, compassionate, dogged woman. Several top Australian actors co-star as grown-up child migrants, notably Hugo Weaving and David Wenham. Crucially, the film is set film entirely in the 1980s, so there are no flashbacks showing small children being torn from their families, or abused in Australian institutions.

There is no tear-jerking here. The filmmakers rely on the poignancy of the stories told by the adults, as they recall the emptiness of never knowing their parents, or thinking they had been abandoned by their mother, or simply not knowing their real names. These stories are heartbreaking, as are the tales of the abuse of the children, often by clergy. So any tears that may flow are real, not manipulated.

Hugo Weaving’s character, Jack, is reserved, damaged and fragile, and Weaving is restrained to the point of being painful. For me, the more compelling story is Len’s (David Wenham). Initially reluctant to speak, Len finally tells Margaret how he was abused by his Australian carers, the Christian Brothers, at Bindoon, a West Australian orphanage (now the Catholic Agricultural College). Len takes Margaret there to show her the building that he says was built stone by stone by children. The quiet humiliation to which Len subjects his former tormentors during that visit shows that Len is no victim. These scenes are among the film’s most powerful.

Ironically, by foregrounding Humphreys’ efforts to uncover this shameful secret, highlighting the strains on her marriage, her career, her health and her sanity, the filmmakers risk a response like mine: as taxing as Humphreys’ work is (she still does it today), what is it compared to the irreparable damage done to the child deportees? Humphreys does her work voluntarily, while the children had no choice in their fates. I’m sure Humphreys herself would agree that there’s no comparison. The suffering of the children is the real story here.