Chalkhills and children: Oranges and Sunshine ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 5, 2011)

It was often said that the “sun never sets on the British Empire”. While that may have been an accurate cartographic assessment, there was a time or two along the way when His Majesty’s Government had a total eclipse…of the heart. In February 2010, British PM Gordon Brown issued an official apology for one of these hiccups, a child migration policy implemented from the 19th century through the late 1960s. It is estimated that more than 130,000 children were affected. According to a CNN article from last year, the group at the tail end of the practice is known as the “Forgotten Australians”, who were shipped off starting just after  WW II:

The so-called “Forgotten Australians” were British children brought up by impoverished families or living in care homes who were shipped to Australia with the promise of a better life.

But many ended up in institutions and orphanages, suffering abuse and forced labor. They later told of being kept in brutal conditions, being physically abused and being forced to work on farms. Many were wrongly told they were orphans, with brothers and sisters separated at dock side and sent to different parts of the country.

This Dickensian scenario continued to flourish under the auspices of the British government until 1970, which was when the final “shipment” arrived (the Australian government has since apologized as well for its part in the three decade-long collusion; whether or not the various church and charity organizations involved at the grass roots level have admitted same is anyone’s guess). However, as some of these children might have recited at one time or another, “For every evil under the sun, there is a remedy or there is none.

In this case, the remedy arrived in the person of British social worker Margaret Humphreys, who, beginning in the mid-1980s, nearly single-handedly brought this extended period of systemic social injustice to world-wide attention, as well as reuniting hundreds of the “forgotten” children (adults by then) with their surviving parents in England. Humphreys wrote a book about this journey, which has now been adapted into Oranges and Sunshine, directed by Jim Loach.

The story opens in 1986, in Nottingham. Initially, Margaret (Emily Watson) seems an unlikely candidate for facilitating family reunions; in the opening scene, she is in fact doing just the opposite-taking custody of an infant from its distraught mother, while the police stand by as dispassionate observers. Margaret keeps her professional cool, but her eyes telegraph a pained resignation to the fact that it is one of those necessary evils that real nitty-gritty social work entails.

One night, as she is leaving her office, Margaret is approached by an Australian woman who tells her she was born in Nottingham, but had been placed into government care as an infant and shipped off to an Australian children’s home. Although she had grown up under the impression that she was an orphan, the woman now has reason to believe that she may have been lied to all those years. She pleads with Margaret to help her find her family roots. Margaret reluctantly promises to investigate, if she can find the time.

However, after another woman (Lorraine Ashbourne) in one of her counseling groups recounts an unusual story about how she was reunited in adult life with a long-lost brother (Hugo Weaving) who had also apparently been sent off to Australia not long after the siblings had been put into government care, Margaret becomes intrigued to dig deeper. Before too long, she connects the dots and a disturbing historical pattern emerges.

This is the directorial debut for Loach (son of Ken), who seems to have inherited his father’s penchant for telling a straightforward story, informed by a righteous social conscience and populated by wholly believable flesh-and-blood characters. He doesn’t try to dazzle us with showy visuals; he’s wise enough to know that when you’ve got an intelligent script (Rona Munro adapted from Humphreys’ book, Empty Cradles) and a skilled ensemble, any extra bells and whistles would only serve to detract from the humanity at the core of the story. Watson never hits a false note; she doesn’t overplay Margaret as a saintly heroine, but rather as an ordinary person who made an extraordinary difference in the world.

While elements of the story are inherently inspiring, it also has a very sad and bittersweet undercurrent. After all, these people were not only essentially robbed of their childhoods, but denied foreknowledge of their true identity, the very essence of what defines each of us as a unique individual.

As Margaret herself says in frustration to one of the now-adult migrant children (an excellent David Denham): “Everybody always thinks there’s going to be this one big cathartic moment when all the wrongs are righted and all the wounds are healed…but it’s not going to happen. I can’t give you back what you’ve lost.” Neither can a film; but like Margaret actions themselves, it assures us that there is some true compassion left in this fucked-up world. And that’s a comforting thought.

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