Posted by: greercn | April 18, 2011

Oranges and Sunshine

Jim Loach has made his first feature film and it’s a deft and entertaining take on what might have been very heavy weather, in less adept hands.  His TV experience allows him to take difficult material and make it engrossing and compelling.

The story centres around 130,000 British children who were sent to a new life in Australia. Think Dickensian darkness, instead of frolics on Bondi Beach and you’re on the right track. They were in care and were sent between about 1946 and 1970.

It’s hopeful and positive, without airbrushing the horrendous situations the grown ups faced as kids. The film starts when a social worker (Margaret Humphreys, played with assured aplomb by Emily Watson) stumbles on the suspicion that those sent away were not orphans, but taken from families who had no idea of the fates of their missing relations. Indeed, some of these “orphans” had living mothers.

I have not read “Empty Cradles”, Humphrey’s book about her work with these families, so I have no idea how accurate the film is in terms of the real life events. The movie is beautifully paced and I didn’t look at my watch once, although readers will be aware that my attention drifts rapidly when a film contains longeurs. I like action and there is plenty of that here.

The bad guys are the priests and the British government, so the relevant quote might be “round up the usual suspects”. I have no way of knowing how many of the children were really orphans and how many were sent away cynically, as the film concentrates on those who have had more dramatic experiences of suffering and removal from families.

The well-written script (Rona Munro) contains lots of very funny moments and the loving relationship between Humphreys and her husband Mervyn (Richard Dillane) – also a social worker – acts as a great counterpoint to the fractured families we meet along the way. The two Humphreys children are so much more understanding that real life kids could possibly be, when Margaret jets off to Australia for repeat visits.

Hugo Weaving, David Wenham, Tara Morice, Lorraine Ashbourne and Kate Rutter stand out in the roles of those most hurt by the events shown. There aren’t any “flashbacks” but the individuals telling their tales ratchet up the atmosphere and make the events come to life. One scene, set in the isolated religious home where much of the alleged abuse took place has beautifully-judged and filmed comic moments, which both lighten and emphasise the weight of the tale.

The music enhances rather than intrudes. The Stratford Picturehouse audience was very entertained and stayed pleasantly silent.

I could quibble about the 1986 fashion, housing and cars being wrong, but enough detail is correct to convince me to just let it go.

This picture belongs to Emily Watson, who dominates every scene with that quiet Zen-like calm and true ability to listen which is possessed by the best social workers I know.

Do see it. It’s a story worth seeing and hearing and Emily Watson should be Oscar-nominated for her performance. I expected to be educated rather than to enjoy myself, but I am very glad the trailer convinced me to view this.

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