Britain's betrayal, powerfully told
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Oct. 21, 2011
When it comes to whistleblower films, the phrase "based on a true story" should sometimes be considered a warning. All too often, it isn't so much an advertisement for the power of the tale you're about to see, it's an indication that the film couldn't leave well enough alone. In some movies - in which the filmmakers don't trust their source material - the bad guys become really bad, the hero really heroic and the long-suffering victims almost insufferably saccharine.
"Oranges and Sunshine" doesn't fall into that trap.
The film is based on the true story of Margaret Humphreys - a British social worker who, in the late 1980s, uncovered a long-standing scheme under which thousands of British children had been deported to Australia. The film features a complex and in some ways flawed heroine, villains who (at least arguably) meant well, and a victim who is, for much of the movie, a real jerk.
It's powerful, gut-wrenching stuff, and it doesn't need tarting up.
Much of the film's effectiveness is due to the performance of Emily Watson. Watson plays Margaret, who one day stumbles onto a client (Lorraine Ashbourne) from her orphan/adoptee support group who has only recently reunited with a long-lost brother, Jack (Hugo Weaving). Jack, as Margaret learns, had been shipped off to Australia from England as a child. (In reality, the children were sent to other former British colonies as well.) While growing up there, he lived as a virtual slave laborer in a Dickensian home for motherless British kids, all of whom underwent similar horrors. Some of the children were sexually abused.
The problem, as Margaret discovers after doing a little poking around in the record books, is that a lot of those children still had mothers at the time of the mass deportations. Their mothers might have been struggling with addiction or working as prostitutes - or maybe they were just unmarried and scared - but they were not, in many cases, dead, as their children were told before being thrown to the wolves.
With a little more digging, Margaret uncovers a systematic scheme - dating from the 19th century to the 1960s, and involving the highest levels of the British and Australian governments - to deport children from the care of the British state to unregulated, and often abusive, institutions Down Under. Some of those institutions were run by Roman Catholic religious orders, which lends the film a creepy timeliness.
As Margaret, Watson is a marvel, making believable her character's steely resolve but tempering it with doubts and fears, not just that she might be harming her own family by immersing herself so wholly in what becomes a crusade, but also that she might be going after some people whose hearts were in the right place.
Her performance is matched by that of David Wenham as Len, another now-grown child deportee who, like Jack, comes to Margaret for help in tracking down his mother. But where Jack is suicidal and self-pitying, Len's bitterness and mistrust are directed outward, often toward Margaret, who's on his side.
Initially, he's pretty unlikable. It's hard to feel sorry for Len when he can't feel sorry for himself. "I had to stop crying when I was 8," he tells Margaret. "I don't know how to start now."
Over the course of the film, his bond with Margaret - which grows to become a true friendship and not just a clinical relationship - forms the spine of the film.
Those looking for tidy closure might not find it in this amazing, yet dark, little movie. But that also feels true to life. As Margaret says at one point, "Everybody thinks there's going to be this big, cathartic moment, when all the wrongs are righted and all the wounds are healed. But it's not going to happen."
She's speaking to Len, but she might as well be talking to us.
Contains obscenity and disturbing subject matter.