Oranges & Sunshine (Kino Lorber, R)

Margaret Humpreys (Emily Watson) is a social worker in Nottingham, specializing in child protection and adoption services. It’s difficult and sometimes heartbreaking work, bringing her into contact with families that are at the breaking point. But she’s good at her job, believes that even or perhaps especially in Thatcherite Britain the social services system is a force for good, and enjoys a warm home life with her husband (Richard Dillane), also a social worker, and their two children (Molly Windsor and Harvey Scrimshaw).

After heading a support group for adopted children one night, Margaret is contacted by Charlotte Cooper (Federay Holmes), a woman of about her own age, for help in locating her birth records. Charlotte says she was sent to Australia from England when she was four years old, on a boat along with hundreds of other children but no parents or guardians. Margaret responds the way many of us would upon hearing such a story: “That can’t be right” and “There’s no way that a group of unaccompanied children would just be shipped off.”

Oranges & Sunshine, the first feature film directed by Jim Loach (son of Ken Loach), is a well-made and entertaining film that accomplishes two other tasks as well: exposing a specific historic wrong, and illustrating the way social class and access to power shape people’s lives. This understanding is not limited to the obvious fact that the children sent to Australia came from poor families, while the people who organized and executed the scheme were not. Social class remains a potent force in 1980s Britain as well, as illustrated in a scene of child removal which contrasts Margaret’s assured middle-class authority, as well as her neat hairstyle and smart blue suit, against the poverty and desperation of a mother living in a grim housing estate.

The meeting between Margaret and Charlotte also illustrates how differences in class and power shape the beliefs and the behavior of the two women. Margaret, playing her role as a good cog in the machinery of the social welfare system, is dismissive of a story that contradicts her understanding of the world, and thinks her responsibility is to execute her job duties as specified. Charlotte, who knows what she lived through, begins their conversation being deferential, but reacts quickly and personally to Margaret’s dismissal (“Come 10,000 miles to find home, and they call you a liar”). Since Charlotte is literally at the end of her resources, and needs to return to Australia soon, she gives Margaret a folder containing all the information she knows about herself, and telling her to “Show me what a liar I am.”  

Margaret begins researching Charlotte’s case and learns, along the way, a whole lot of unexpected things about the workings of her government and of organizations who act claim to act on the behalf of children. She also travels to Australia, where she meets a number of transported children, including Jack (Hugo Weaving), who was shipped off to Australia while his sister Nicky (Lorraine Ashbourne) remained in England, Dan (Russell Dykstra), and Len (David Wenham). The latter is by far the most memorable character in this film, and also the survivor least willing to show deference to Margaret and her authority.

Margaret is both the protagonist and the audience surrogate in Oranges & Sunshine, which is a lot of work to demand from a single character. Emily Watson does a fine job in the role, but centering her story (rather than that of the orphans, who act as supporting players in her journey to understanding) makes Oranges & Sunshine a more conventional and less dramatic film than it might have been. It also makes this film guilty of the same charge leveled at award-winning films such as CODA (a film about a deaf family, but whose central character is hearing) and Green Book (a film about segregated America, but whose central character is white)—constructing a film around a character who will feel comfortable and familiar to the majority of audience members, rather than the more interesting character(s) who are the reason for the film existing in the first place.

Oranges & Sunshine is a well-made film, but its importance surpasses its ability to entertain. I was completely unaware of the story fold in this film, and the historical facts are even worse than what you see on the screen. Transportation of “vagrant children” from England to other parts of the British Empire began early in the 17th century, for the dual purposes of supplying labor in the colonies and removing undesirables from United Kingdom. The “Home Children” scheme, begun in 1869 and continued well into the 20th century, was investigated by the real-life Margaret Humphreys, whose book 1994 book Empty Cradles served as source material for Rona Munro’s screenplay for Oranges & Sunshine.

Oranges & Sunshine got an R rating by the MPAA for strong language (including 7 uses of the f-word according to imdb.com), but I feel a more appropriate rating would be PG-13; child abuse is described by the survivors, but not shown directly, and there’s no graphic sex or violence. | Sarah Boslaugh

Oranges & Sunshine is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, with a street date of April 12. Extras on the disc include interview with cast and crew members (25 min.), a making-of featurette (13 min.), and the film’s trailer.

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