Hard Knock Life, by David Bax
Oranges and Sunshine is a cruelly and intentionally misleading title for this film. I mean that in the best way possible. Whatever pleasantness that title suggests is an ironic set-up for the largely dour and, at times, quite heartbreaking story about to be told. Fitting because that same vicious irony was visited upon many of the film’s subjects.
Oranges tells the true story of Margaret Humphreys, an English social worker who, starting in the mid-1980’s, has worked to bring to attention the plight of those affected by the UK’s “Home Children” program. This was a policy by which poor children were forcibly resettled to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Many of them were told that their parents had died. The movie is solely concerned with the Australian adults who were shipped there in their youth and Humphreys’ efforts to find retribution for them and reconnect them with their families when possible.
There are a lot of facts I could give you about the Home Children program, almost all of them ranging from infuriating to unfathomable and the film relays a great many of them. Yet, to director Jim Loach’s credit, he avoids making the formulaic true story movie by very smartly treating the facts as background and generally focusing on the personal and human elements. Though we see a large number of the grown migrants, only a very few of them are actually characters. Still, their stories speak for the stories of the group as a whole and they do so well.
Eventually, that is. The first act of the film has to set up a lot, from Humphreys’ home life to her finding out about the program to her researching it to her first trip to Australia. Loach leans heavily on voice-overs of conversations about what’s happening and what’s going to happen. Furthermore, these sections contain details that we could do without. It reads as if someone stepped in and said, “Make this more clear” when it didn’t need to be.
I only present that assumption because the lack of grace in those expository voice-overs clashes with the rest of Loach’s more refined tactics. His aesthetic is not docudrama gritty but it never leaves the realm of realism behind, either. There’s a grim, unforced beauty to a lot of his shots and their coloring. Matching this are the portrayals, both on the page and on the screen, of the film’s characters. With the exception of Humphreys herself (Emily Watson), who edges a little too close to being saintly, even when apparently neglecting her own family in favor of those of others, the people in Oranges cannot be summed up in a few words. The migrants especially are hard to pin down. We of course sympathize with them but, given how many of them grew up in abusive boarding school situations after being relocated, they can be a hard, cloistered and distrusting bunch.
This is personified best by David Wenham in the film’s most admirable performance as Len, a relocated child who was beaten regularly at a boys’ school and has since gone on to noteworthy financial success. Wenham delivers a remarkably easily, confidently threatening performance when Len is first introduced. The way the character transitions from being fiercely antagonistic toward Humphreys to being fiercely protective of her when he is assured of her motives illustrates the animalistic thought processes of a man who grew up with no one to care for him.
Unfortunately, the intelligent and subtle film that Oranges and Sunshine became after its first act is a short-lived one. In the final stretches, screenwriter Rona Munro can’t resist putting the film’s themes directly in her characters’ mouths, foolishly distrusting that audience to understand what is already clear. With a strong middle section and a fascinating, if enraging, story, it’s a movie that’s worth your time. It’s frustrating, however, to see it blow the landing.