Sunshine, 104 mins, rated M, opens in cinemas 9 June 2011.
(This is a slightly longer version of
my review as published
in the June 2011 issue of The New South Wales Law Society
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
Nearly 20 years ago, the ABC and the BBC co-produced a TV movie called The Leaving of Liverpool (Michael
Jenkins, 1992). It told the story of two children who were sent by the
British Government to live in Australia after World War II. It was a
powerful film that introduced many of us for the first time to the
plight of the “child migrants”.
Now there’s a new film on the same topic, but told from a different
angle. Oranges and Sunshine
is the story of Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham,
who gradually uncovered the great social scandal of the forced
migration of British children, sent by the authorities away from their
unfit (unwed?) mothers, to a new life in Australia. They were promised
oranges and sunshine, but instead most got harsh treatment in
children’s homes. Incredibly, 130,000 child deportees were sent to
Australia this way, from the 19th century until 1970, mostly during the
1950s and 60s.
While this film was still in production, in 2009, these former child
migrants, state wards and foster children received an apology from
Prime Minister Rudd, on behalf of Australia. Later, British Prime
Minister Gordon Brown issued a similar apology on behalf of the British
Oranges and Sunshine has a good pedigree: it is directed by British
filmmaker Jim Loach, son of Ken Loach. The scriptwriter is Rona Munro,
who wrote Loach Snr’s Ladybird
Ladybird (1994). Jim Loach comes from a career in TV to this,
his first feature film. Although this film is about a social evil, it
is not a “Ken Loach film”.
Margaret Humphreys’ own book about the child migrants, Empty Cradles (1996), tells many
stories about the children she helped, in their adulthood, to find
their families. Screenwriter Munro decided that it would be better to
concentrate on Margaret’s story: how one woman brought worldwide
attention to this shocking abuse of human rights, how she helped to
reunite thousands of families, and the toll this took on her physical
and emotional health. This simplifies matters, but putting Margaret’s
story in the foreground has another effect, which I’ll come back to.
Playing Margaret is Emily Watson (Breaking
the Waves, 1996, Hilary and
Jackie, 1998, Cold Souls,
2009). She gives a fine performance as a practical, compassionate,
dogged woman. Several top Australian actors co-star as grown-up child
migrants, notably Hugo Weaving and David Wenham. Crucially, the film is
set film entirely in the 1980s, so there are no flashbacks showing
small children being torn from their families, or abused in Australian
There is no tear-jerking here. The filmmakers rely on the poignancy of
the stories told by the adults, as they recall the emptiness of never
knowing their parents, or thinking they had been abandoned by their
mother, or simply not knowing their real names. These stories are
heartbreaking, as are the tales of the abuse of the children, often by
clergy. So any tears that may flow are real, not manipulated.
Hugo Weaving’s character, Jack, is reserved, damaged and fragile, and
Weaving is restrained to the point of being painful. For me, the more
compelling story is Len’s (David Wenham). Initially reluctant to speak,
Len finally tells Margaret how he was abused by his Australian carers,
the Christian Brothers, at Bindoon, a West Australian orphanage (now
the Catholic Agricultural College). Len takes Margaret there to show
her the building that he says was built stone by stone by children. The
quiet humiliation to which Len subjects his former tormentors during
that visit shows that Len is no victim. These scenes are among the
film’s most powerful.
Ironically, by foregrounding Humphreys’ efforts to uncover this
shameful secret, highlighting the strains on her marriage, her career,
her health and her sanity, the filmmakers risk a response like mine: as
taxing as Humphreys’ work is (she still does it today), what is it
compared to the irreparable damage done to the child deportees?
Humphreys does her work voluntarily, while the children had no choice
in their fates. I’m sure Humphreys herself would agree that there’s no
comparison. The suffering of the children is the real story here.