Film review: Oranges and Sunshine

17 June 2011

Written by: Suzannah Macbeth

Oranges and Sunshine is based on a true story that details the 1986 discovery of a child migration scheme by Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys. During the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of children from poverty-stricken homes and institutions were transported to a promised better life in sunny Australia. Many of the parents were told their children had been adopted, while the children were often erroneously told that their parents were dead.

Upon arrival in Australia, many of the children were subject to sexual abuse, child slavery and mental neglect in remote boarding houses in rural Australia.  When confronted by one of those who had been deported to Australia, Humphreys (Emily Watson) sets out to reunite the migrant children with their families, and to expose this great injustice.

An unimaginable history and a horrific past encapsulate the film. Set in the mid to late 1980s, the stories of the migrant children are in the foreground ahead of the political struggles for government acknowledgement, which would not be resolved for another 23 years. There are links with the forced movement of children seen in Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), which looks at the shameful period in Australia’s history of the Stolen Generation.

The release of Oranges and Sunshine comes at an important time, with apologies for the forced migration only taking place very recently under the Rudd and Brown governments in Australia and the United Kingdom respectively. These apologies came over 50 years after the British child migration took place.

In Oranges and Sunshine, Watson plays the incredible real life advocate Margaret Humphreys who established the Child Migrant’s Trust in 1987. Watson’s Humphreys meets the standard conventions for a nurturing heroine fighting through adversity. She is compassionate, empathetic and maternal. As a mother with young children, there are scenes that portray the choice and sacrifices involved between career and family. However, these scenes are not depicted as the familiar Hollywood-style confrontational conflict scenes. Margaret’s husband (Richard Dillane) and children are supportive but still miss her absence, striking an important and realistic equilibrium.

Oranges and Sunshine is the feature film directorial debut of Jim Loach, who up until now has directed television series and serials. Loach is the son of prolific filmmaker Ken Loach, and it seems that the apple (or orange or any proverbial fruit) does not fall far from the tree. Loach thankfully isn’t afraid of sentimentality and manages to bring just the right amount of emotional weight to the screen, which in other hands could border on morose.

The strength of Rona Munro’s script lies in the confessional-style accounts from the victims of the scheme in their meetings with Humphreys. These meetings showcase an array of familiar Australian faces. Outside of the two headliners, David Wenham and Hugo Weaving, there’s also Tara Morice, Geoff Morrell, Russell Dykstra and Greg Stone, to name a few. These local talents display emotionally anguished performances, with a special mention to Weaving. Also locally, Lisa Gerrard provides a kind score that is sentimental and emotionally evocative. Internationally, Watson brings a poignant and positive portrayal to a selfless social worker, without placing Humphreys into martyrdom.

The film was shot in Adelaide but set in Western Australia. The Australia depicted conjures up images of yesteryear and of a convict settlement, a reminder that the exportation of unwanted British citizens to Australia is a common theme in the country’s history. Desolate and barren landscapes in rural Australia indicate the reality of living conditions for migrant children, while scenes set on the sunny seashore showcase another familiar image of Australia as a paradise. This latter image was part of the deceitful promise of ‘oranges and sunshine’ that was imparted to the children as they left England.

Harrowingly emotional, Oranges and Sunshine is a small production about a huge social injustice. It details both the heroic struggle of one woman, and the struggle of thousands of children. It is an important film historically, and is still timely. Just recently, wards of the Fairbridge Farm School in Western Australia have brought legal action against the Federal and State governments for turning a blind eye to the abuse occurring there. Without a doubt, we will be hearing more of the stories of child migrants, like those featured in the compelling Oranges and Sunshine.

James Madden completed his Bachelor of Arts at La Trobe University, majoring in Cinema and Media Studies. He is currently undertaking a Master of Art and Cultural Management at the University of Melbourne. This review was originally featured on his film reviewing blog Film Blerg, and you can find him on twitter @maddtwit