Auds may well be in tears just minutes into “Oranges and Sunshine,” a deeply moving study of emotionally scarred adults who were illegally deported as children to Australia from Britain in the 1940s and ’50s. Toplining a superb Emily Watson as Margaret Humphreys, the British social worker who brought the shameful secret to world attention in the late ’80s, this standout debut by British helmer Jim Loach, son of director Ken Loach, will make a strong claim for arthouse berths everywhere. World preemed at Pusan, pic is skedded for April 2011 release in Blighty and Down Under.
Co-produced by Loach Sr.’s Sixteen Films company and scripted by Rona Munro, who wrote “Ladybird, Ladybird,” pic has all the grit and integrity of a Ken Loach movie. What’s immediately clear is that Jim Loach, an experienced TV director, is no pale imitation of his highly respected father.
Munro’s finely chiseled adaptation of Humphreys’ 1996 book “Empty Cradles” astutely avoids flashbacks of youngsters being herded onto boats. Set entirely in the 1980s, the movie opens with Margaret (Watson) more or less stumbling onto the life-changing story when confronted in Nottingham by Charlotte (Federay Holmes), an Australian woman who wants “to find out who I am.”
Supported by loving husband Merv (Richard Dillane), also a social worker, Margaret discovers Charlotte is one of thousands of British youngsters who were unlawfully removed from children’s homes and “unfit” (i.e., unwed) mothers and sent to Australia “for their own good.”
Undaunted by unhelpful British and Australian officials, Margaret reunites Charlotte with her mother. She then travels to Perth with Englishwoman Nicky (Lorraine Ashbourne) to meet the latter’s long-lost deportee brother, Jack (Hugo Weaving). Soon, she is swamped by enquiries from hundreds of Jacks and Charlottes, many of whom were told their parents were dead.
The heartbreaking stories Margaret hears will bring tears to most eyes. Without a hint of sensationalism or manipulation, deportees discuss the emptiness of never having felt a proper sense of identity. Others confess to feeling worthless after years of mental and physical abuse in orphanages, many of them church-run. One can practically see the frightened children in the eyes of these wounded adults.
The exception is Len (David Wenham), a brusque type who appears unscarred by his time at Bindoon, a remote Catholic orphanage where unspeakable acts were said to have taken place. Now a benefactor of the institution, he takes Margaret to his former home and exacts revenge with a quiet, beautifully controlled fury.
While touching on growing media interest in the explosive story and anonymous threats of physical harm to Margaret, the pic remains firmly focused on the terrible personal cost of political decisions kept hidden from public view.
Watson is perfect as the upright, compassionate and fiercely determined champion of victims’ rights. Weaving has rarely been better than as the empty Jack, and Wenham brings a sharp edge as the prickly Len. Thesping right down to the bit players is excellent.
In the best tradition of British social realism, Denson Baker’s largely handheld camera is steady and unobtrusive; Lisa Gerrard’s lovely score is discreetly applied. All other technical aspects are top-notch.