Much like Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence in 2002, Oranges & Sunshine cites a shameful period in Australia’s history. The film’s release comes at an important time, where apologies have only occurred within the last couple of years under the Rudd and Brown governments in Australia and England, over 50 years after the actual events took place.
Set in the mid-late 1980s, the film focuses on the “home children” themselves over broader political struggles and government acknowledgement. Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, the social worker who came across these cases. As a character within a film, there are appropriate conventions that are met. Margaret is naturally compassionate, empathetic and maternal. As a mother with young children, there are scenes that portray the choice and sacrifices made between career and family. However, these scenes are not depicted in the familiar Hollywood-style confrontational-conflict formulaic scenes. Margaret’s husband (Richard Dillane) and children are supportive and yet still miss her in her absence, striking an important and realistic equilibrium.
Oranges and Sunshine sees the feature film directorial debut of Jim Loach, who up until now has directed television series and serials. Loach is also the son of prolific filmmaker Ken Loach, and it seems that the apple (or orange) does not fall far from the tree. Loach doesn’t shy away from sentimentality, and brings just the right amount of emotion weight to the screen, which in other hands could border on morose.
The strength of Rona Munro’s script lies in the confessional-style accounts from the victims of the scheme when meeting with Margeret. These meetings showcase an array of familiar Australian faces, outside of the two headliners (David Wenham and Hugo Weaving), Tara Morice, Geoff Morrell, Russell Dykstra, and Greg Stone to name a few.
While set in Perth, the film was shot in Adelaide, and the Australia depicted conjures up images of yesteryear, and of a convict settlement. Indeed Australia’s identity relates back to the Commonwealth whereupon housing English exports is a historical pastime. Both aesthetically and in actuality, the destinations to where the children were sent existed in the desolate and baron outback – a familiar Australian image. The sunny seashore showcases another familiar image of Australia as a paradise, to which the deceitful promises of “oranges and sunshine” were imparted to the children when deported.
Being a joint production between Australia and the UK, there is a mix of both local and international talent. Locally, lead actors Weaving and Wenham both give emotionally anguished performances, with a special mention for Weaving. Small parts played by the aforementioned grown-up Australians showcase good talent. Also locally, Lisa Gerrard provides a kind score that is sentimental and emotionally evocative. Internationally, Watson is wonderful bringing a poignant and positive portrayal of a selfless social worker, without placing the character into martyrdom.
Harrowingly emotional, Oranges and Sunshine is a small film about a huge injustice. It both details the heroic struggle of one woman, and of thousands of children. It is an important film historically, and is still incredibly timely. Just recently, wards of the Fairbridge Farm School have brought legal action against the Federal and State governments for turning a blind eye against the abuse that existed. Without doubt, we will be hearing more of the stories of the migrated children, such as the ones featured in the compelling Oranges and Sunshine.
Oranges and Sunshine is on release now in Australia through Icon Films.
Words: James Madden