IT HAS BEEN 18 MONTHS SINCE Kevin Rudd delivered Australia’s formal apology to the ‘Forgotten Children’, in the Great Hall of Parliament House. Since then, little has been heard about the shocking Child Migration Program that existed between Australia and the UK. That is, until now.
Oranges and Sunshine, a film based on the long-forgotten program, stars Emily Watson as a Nottingham-based social worker, named Margaret Humphreys, who uncovered a well-kept secret between the two nations: the mass, enforced migration of orphans from the UK to the Commonwealth, including Australia, which totalled over 130,000. The so-called Child Migrant Program – which took off in post-war, economically ravaged England – was only officially stopped in 1970.
Filmmaker Jim Loach instinctively knew this forgotten story would have to be what became his feature debut. “Honestly, she got four or five sentences in, and I was absolutely spell bound,” he says, of the horror story which real-life campaigner Margaret Humphreys described. “I found it completely extraordinary. I was amazed so little had been said about it.”
While shaken and stirred, Loach (pictured, above) found the nature of this dark, forgotten episode in Australia’s (and the UK’s) history inadvertently helping with his own burgeoning dreams of becoming a feature filmmaker, on his own terms: far from the madding crowd back home.
“I think it’s probably not a coincidence that I was drawn to the story because it happens in Australia – the other side of the world from my home town,” he says, reflecting on the down side to being the son of a celebrated director (Ken Loach).
“My dad being my dad, it’s always going to be a factor, back home. You feel like you get in the neck whatever you do. It’s completely out of control. But to me, he’s just my dad. We’re really close. In Australia, it’s not a big deal, more of a talking point. So I could just get on with making the film – a film I very much wanted to make.”
Joining the understated Englishman on his cross-cultural mission – Oranges and Sunshine is an Australian-UK co-production, in every sense – is an enviable cast of acclaimed stars, including Australia’s David Wenham and Hugo Weaving (pictured, above, with Watson). The pair play two of the victims trying to cope, some 30 years on. Wenham, in particular, admits that playing the character of Len was one of the biggest challenges of his acting life.
“I couldn’t understand Len to begin with,” he says. “He responds in a rather unusual way: he’s supremely confident, somewhat defensive, and he’s seemingly unaffected by these traumatic experiences, which is sort of interesting. And from an acting perspective, it’s very hard. Because it’s not the way someone would normally respond.”
Wenham (pictured, above, with Watson) was so vigilant with his research, he was even invited by one of the real-life children from the program to visit him, in Perth – and go down to the house the kids built, a house that soon became their prison.
“Having been to the real Bindoon [one of the more infamous sites, referenced in the film], it does give the idea of what it’s really like,” he says. “This huge structure in the middle of nowhere: these kids were children used as slave labour, used to build the so-called ‘facilities’ in which they would supposedly learn and live in.”
The formal apologies from both governments (the UK’s followed Australia’s, in February 2010) coincided with the film’s post-production, after 20 years of campaigning by Humphreys herself. But while Loach insists it could be just that (a coincidence), he does feel that the film has already made a difference: to some of the children who suffered at the time.
“We showed the film to a lot of the real people in Perth, who became an inspiration for our characters,” he says. “They were incredibly supportive. It was incredibly moving experience. I think they really got a lot out of seeing their experience validated on screen. And the audiences in England have told us that they take it as a very inspirational story, that it’s an uplifting story, that one woman didn’t give up. So, hopefully, we have made a difference.”
First published in The Sun-Herald.
ORANGES AND SUNSHINE – the review
HARKING BACK TO AN AGE WHERE children were ‘seen but not heard’, this Australian-UK co-production opts to tackle a subject that, until recently, was lost to the sands of time. Its focus: the forced deportation of 130,000 orphaned children from the UK to Commonwealth countries, including Australia – and the horrific conditions the kids faced when they arrived Down Under.
England’s Emily Watson leads the charge, playing real-life justice fighter Margaret Humphreys: a social worker from Nottingham who stumbles across a shameful secret while helping those in need. Almost immediately, Humphreys dedicates herself to reuniting orphans with their families – many of whom have been told they were dead – while facing a wall of opposition from the authorities and the so-called care agencies that welcomed the kids in.
Watson (pictured, above) was seemingly born to play the role of Humphreys – who is still reuniting families, some 20 years on – infusing a motherly awareness with a deft blend of gravitas and conviction. Likewise, Australia’s David Wenham and Hugo Weaving do well to tackle roles that debunk the myth of the Aussie male. These are troubled men in dire need of support and nurturing – and no amount of bravado can hide the fact.
Weaving has given us glimpses of troubled souls before (most recently, via last year’s impressive but little-seen Last Ride). Wenham, as Len, is in fresher waters, masterfully straddling an awkwardly fine line between the tough-exterior male and the deeply wounded lost soul with nowhere left to go. His ‘coming out’ as he takes Humphreys to the scene of the childhood torture is a revelation, in every sense.
Jim Loach’s feature debut (his dad is the acclaimed English filmmaker Ken Loach) presents the horrific injustice of forced child migration in a calm, measured manner. It begins much like a kitchen-sink drama, in drab 1980s England, as Humphreys is wrapping up at work. As soon as she enters the foreign, decidedly unwelcome territory of the perpetrators in the Australian outback, the horror swiftly sinks in.
More shocking still for this vital film and its real-life victims, the ‘official apologies’ that eventually emerged from red-faced governments both in Australia and the UK were largely overlooked by the media at large here. In light of this, and given the tower of strength that Humphreys continues to provide for the children and their families today, Loach’s film takes on an even greater poignancy.
For Australia, where the forced migration of these forgotten children reached its peak in the mid 1960s, this sordid tale forms an integral, overlooked part of a dark chapter in the nation’s history that’s otherwise known as the White Australia Policy. (The UK was all-too eager to empty its orphanages as well, mind.)
The detail of what went on within these closed halls of power – repeated assaults, slave labour, torrid conditions – are all bravely addressed by Loach. It’s a subject that so few know of, yet begs to be heard by a wider audience. Whether this film can bring it into the public domain per se is debatable, but it presents this challenging slice of recent history in a moving, succinct way.
Not surprisingly, the church and the various children’s charities involved do not come off in a good light, but then that’s hardly the point. These kids were deemed worthless by both sides of the Commonwealth, and left to rot in the most appalling conditions imaginable (the juxtaposition of grey England with bright and spacious Australia couldn’t be more stark – or misleading, for the children). That Loach has so evocatively brought this tale of injustice to the fore is praise enough. That he’s done so with such an impressive cast, and slight of dramatic hand, elevates it far beyond the status of a sympathy feature.
Critical Rating: 8/10.
ORANGES AND SUNSHINE is in cinemas now.