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Oranges and Sunshine

October 30, 2011
Oranges and Sunshine

When you think of Dickensian England, the first thing to come to mind is probably the poorhouse from Oliver Twist. It can take a while to wrap your mind around the fact that such places really did exist. Not only did they exist all over the Commonwealth; orphaned or vagrant children were sometimes shipped from England by the hundreds to fill them. Worse yet: this state-sanctioned deportation actually continued until the 1970s, and it wasn’t owned up to by the British government until 2010. Oranges and Sunshine tells how these events came to light.

Social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) stumbled across the “home children” programs in 1986, when an Australian woman named Charlotte (Federay Holmes) returned to Nottingham in search of some trace of her family. Her parents had died and she was sent off to Australia at the age of four, not to an adoption but simply to be housed at another institution. At first, Humphreys found the story unbelievable, but then one of the former orphans she worked with was contacted out of the blue by her brother, Jack (Hugo Weaving) who had also been shipped off to Australia. After a little digging, Humphreys turned up Charlotte’s birth records, followed by a record of her mother’s marriage six years later — two years after Charlotte had been deported.

Humphreys goes to Australia herself to accompany Jack to a reunion for children that had been in the same home with him. She hears some more about the conditions in the institution, and meets dozens of other former home children, all wondering about their families. She takes on the project full-time. After a newspaper article appears, dozens snowball into hundreds. She meets Len (David Wenham), a well-to-do former deportee who grew up in a home in Bindoon, Western Australia run by the Christian Brothers.

This institution seems to have been particularly harsh, with all the abuse people now regularly ascribe to all Catholic priests as dark punchlines running rampant. Boys assembled a rock building more or less by hand in a harsh climate out in the middle of nowhere. The home children who ended up there were at the receiving end of two incredible travesties of human rights.

Oranges and Sunshine tells of a very important and worthy story, but it runs face-first into one giant problem: there’s not really a narrative. Yes, there’s some small drama with Humphreys working herself to the bone and being threatened by knee-jerk defenders of institutions they don’t want to hear anything bad about, but there’s no real opposition to her efforts other than inertia; governments just don’t want to be bothered with apologizing for decades-old scandals without something to gain. The usual culprits in this sort of story are also absent. Humphreys’ husband, Mervyn (Richard Dillane) is not only a strong supporter from the beginning, he has jumped into the effort with both feet himself. Humphreys’ boss not only doesn’t try to stop her, she asks “what do you need?” and instantly grants Humphreys two years to work on the project — I would have asked for a team, but what do I know.

What this really is is a documentary masquerading as a drama. It provides the assertion that these things happened and makes them known to a wide audience, but it does so without the usual documentary or testimonial trappings of a nonfiction film. Ironically, in a way I give it credit for not injecting drama and turning the story into a Lifetime movie-of-the-week. But while it’s a good and noble thing to bear honest witness, as a narrative movie it falls short.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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