THE SLIGHTLY soggy and obvious Oranges and Sunshine sources Margaret Humphreys’ book Empty Cradles; the director is a debuting Jim Loach, Ken’s son. Whatever its limitations, the film tells a story that at least two nations would have preferred to sweep under the rug.
Transportation to Australia as punishment officially ended in 1868. But there was a little-known policy among church groups and charities to pluck children from “unsuitable” homes in Britain and send them overseas. Parents rarely found out what happened to their children. They were often used as indentured labor, and some (such as the denizens of the Christian Brothers’ school in Bindoon, Western Australia) were raped and beaten.
Emily Watson does what she can playing Humphreys, a role conceived in the familiar form of every crusading-woman movie. She goes from indefatigable to dogged. Some noted Australian actors appear: Hugo Weaving as a bearded loner who was snatched from his pub-owning mother; Tara Morice of Strictly Ballroom as one of the transported, who ended up a scrubwoman; and David Wenham, who is first Margaret’s skeptical adversary, and then a great help to her. Wenham is there for one of Oranges and Sunshine‘s rare moments of lightness, a driving scene to Cat Stevens’ “Wild World.”
Articles by such reporters as Susan Chenery of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian‘s Aida Edemariam fill in the movie’s blanks, while Loach keeps the story in the present tense. In the abstract, this is a less melodramatic way of telling the horror stories of these abused children. And it’s certainly less expensive; vintage costumes and sets are not required. But Margaret becomes the focus; it’s about her and her self-sacrifices, and her family neglected on Christmas—rather than the details of this 19th-century-style horror that took place only a few decades ago.
When Margaret is told of how hard it is for the stolen children to feel the pain of their losses—but “you feel it for all of us”—one can see how Oranges and Sunshine became a soft-edged tribute to the heart of the social worker. A more troubling film could have been made, showing how the similar (if warped) urge to reform had stimulated the politicians who came up with this idea, as well as the journalists who must have trumpeted this cruel scheme.
Opens Friday, Camera 3, San Jose; Guild, Menlo Park