Somewhere in the world is a rubric for injustices that dictates whether an atrocity merits global attention. That being the case, it makes one wonder what outrages didn’t make the cut and were subsequently swept under the rug. Oranges and Sunshine helps shed some light on a horrific turn of events that occurred within living memory that the majority of the world – including the citizens of the nation that perpetrated the actions – had no idea ever happened. Despite the story, don’t expect too much coaxing of tears here; Oranges and Sunshine is best approached as a dramatized documentary rather than an emotional journey.
Real-life social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) works with adult orphans. After one of her group sessions, a woman approaches Margaret and explains that she had been deported as a child with hundreds of other children and sent to Australia. Now the woman has returned to England to find her mother. Margaret investigates and discovers that hundreds of thousands of children had been similarly shipped off over several decades, and Margaret takes it upon herself to visit Australia and get to the bottom of the matter. There she meets several of the surviving children – now adults – who are eager to share their stories. One of them is Jack (Hugo Weaving) who wants to reconnect with his mother in England. Another is Len (David Wenham) who also wants to find family. The more Margaret investigates, however, the more ire she draws from the institutions that were involved in the illegal deportation of the children. However, the horrific experiences these children endured leave Margaret with no choice but to see her investigation through to the end.
Oranges and Sunshine is the kind of story that was designed to break hearts and shake heads at how people treat other people. The themes here are very dark, including sexual abuse, death, brutality, the disintegration of families and more. The former children struggle with connecting with others as adults. Margaret’s health and family life deteriorates as the film wears on. Some of the stories that the former children share are experiences any parent would do anything to spare their own children from. Surprisingly, however, the film is not a dark film. It isn’t necessarily cheery, but no one will leave the theater angry or upset. Instead, the story simply follows Margaret as she uncovers more pieces to the puzzle, which is intriguing in its own right, but mostly light on emotion.
The fact that the children are all adults when the audience meets them definitely helps keep the film from turning into melodrama. All of the formerly abused children seem well-adjusted to their realities. When Len talks about his past, cleaning rubbish all day as a small child with no shoes and then later getting tied to a tree to be beaten, he speaks in even tones as if describing some scenery rather than a traumatic experience. That’s not to say that the film is emotionless. The most emotionally charged scene features Margaret giving Jack news about his mother and Hugo Weaving’s brilliant performance will no doubt elicit a few sniffles and wet cheeks.
Emily Watson’s performance is nuanced, but perhaps a little too subtle, augmenting the notion of emotional disconnect in the film. To be sure, she has her outbursts when script calls for it, but by and large she’s very retrained even during scenes where audiences might expect some kind of emotional reaction. Hugo Weaving, however, proves to audiences who are only familiar with his work in blockbusters that he actually has a deep well of acting chops to draw from.
Since Oranges and Sunshine is based on actual circumstances and people, it makes sense that the script focused more on the events rather than the characters, which is a shame because the themes in the film are rich for mining. The parallel experiences of the deported children being separated from their mothers and Margaret’s own children being separated from her due to her constant time abroad is only partially explored. Furthermore, the stakes don’t feel very high. While Margaret is stonewalled at some junctions, she’s surprisingly supported in other avenues. Her husband encourages her investigation despite her being away so much. Her boss gives her two years off from work so she can focus solely on this task. As such, there’s very little sense of overcoming obstacles, especially since the opposition is faceless and seems so nebulous. Without a villain, it’s difficult to find the emotional gratification. As even Margaret states in the film, there won’t be a catharsis at the end of it all.
Who knew that something this despicable could occur in recent history and have so little publicity? Oranges and Sunshine is worth watching at least once as a reminder that even civilized nations do not always have the best interest of its citizenry in mind. Stories like this should be witnessed as a way to bring a modicum of justice to those who suffered through the actual events and to ensure these mistakes are not repeated.