Title: Oranges and Sunshine
Director: Jim Loach
Starring: Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham
“Oranges and Sunshine” is re-affirming evidence that not every remarkable true story a remarkable film makes. Based on the book “Empty Cradles” by British social worker Margaret Humphreys, the movie tells the story of its crusading subject, who worked to uncover one of the most shocking government-sanctioned scandals of modern times — the forced deportation of many thousands of children from the United Kingdom to Australia. Both overall and scene-to-scene, though, “Oranges and Sunshine” exudes a just-fine feeling of dutiful emotional string-pulling, and nothing more. It commits no great and cringe-worthy offenses, but neither does it ever really get its hooks into an audience, and make them in a lasting way truly feel either the shock or heartbroken compassion its story should elicit.
The story opens in 1986. Nottingham native Humphreys (Emily Watson) is a mother and wife who is equally devoted to her career as a social worker. After being approached by a woman claiming to have been sent to Australia from the United Kingdom as a child, with no parents or guardian, Margaret starts investigating her story. Soon letters with similar tales start popping up, spanning the 1940s and ’50s all the way into the ’60s; Humphreys is quickly convinced that this is no hoax, but instead must have been part of a government policy of orphan and group home relocation. Talking firsthand to many of these forcibly emigrated children, now adults — among them the sensitive Jack (Hugo Weaving), and more standoffish Len (David Wenham) — Margaret finds that indeed, instead of lotus land and the sort of warmth and happiness promised in the movie’s title, the children were plunked down into indentured servitude and often worse, including sexual abuse.
The narrative feature debut of director Jim Loach (son of Ken Loach, and an acclaimed documentary helmer in his own right), “Oranges and Sunshine” is a well-meaning but entirely leaden movie. A big part of the stolid reaction the movie generates can be traced to Rona Munro’s listless and generic adaptation of Humphreys’ memoir. There’s an awful lot of speechifying, and a certain procedural quality to the dialogue (“You’ve got to understand how things were 40 years ago — no one wanted a shame, or scandal”), which feels it necessary to constantly remind viewers of the state-sanctioned qualities of the case, lest they somehow forget. Humphreys’ boss, though, is super-cooperative and encouraging, immediately granting her two years to work the case exclusively, and pressing for the increased leverage that publicity for the case will garner. This drains the story of a lot of dramatic tension out of the gate, to the point that later shadowy attempts at intimidation of Humphreys — while rooted in fact — come across as over-the-top.
While a coda notes the official 2009 and 2010 government apologies of Australia and the United Kingdom, respectively, Munro’s adaptation also never cracks or communicates, in a very fundamental way, the “whos, whys and hows” of the Christian Brothers, the Australian-based Catholic group that took receipt of so many children, and abused many of them. It would perhaps represent silly overreach to distill this air-quote charitable organization to a single villain, but when the movie grants Humphreys and Jack a scene in which they visit the private dining room of these religious gentlemen, they simply stare, cowed and dumbfounded — a scene that doesn’t jibe with the thuggish tidbits of anonymous intimidation presented earlier.
Her scenes shared with Wenham, who’s afforded a nice arc, take on a grander emotional connection, but Watson largely seems handcuffed by the choice — be it in Loach’s direction, a worshipful adherence to the source material, or some combination of both — to portray Humphreys mostly as a no-nonsense automaton. Scenes of familial discord over her long hours and travels are honest but also lacking in any sense of multifaceted texture. Weaving, meanwhile, summons moist eyes in a pair of briefly gut-churning scenes (one of which finds him learning of his mother’s passing) that highlight the family connections and moments taken from him, and so many others. Mostly, though, “Oranges and Sunshine” is a “message movie” told in staid, blocky fashion, as if already edited down, content-wise, for a Hallmark-style TV presentation, and the lowest-common-denominator audience that medium occasionally implies.
Written by: Brent Simon