Yet another reality-based tale of a lone crusader who takes on past injustice, but a fairly good example of this overused genre, “Oranges and Apples” represents the feature debut of Jim Loach, the son of director Ken. It’s stylistically different from his father’s work, which is rough-hewn and improvisational; this picture is technically slicker, with Denson Baker’s cinematography going for elegance rather than gritty realism. But it too aims to move viewers over the plight of victims of society’s callousness and indifference.
Rona Munro’s script is adapted from the memoir “Empty Cradles” by Margaret Humphreys, played here, in very restrained fashion, by Emily Watson. Humphreys was an English social worker who, during her work during the 1980s, encountered Charlotte (Federay Holmes), an Australian woman who wanted to find out who she was. Investigating Charlotte’s past, Humphreys discovered that she was one of many English children who were removed from the care of single mothers and orphanages in the 1940s and 1950s and sent Down Under. Though the authorities are unhelpful and often downright hostile, she not only manages to reunite Charlotte with her mother, but travels to Australia, where she meets Jack (Hugo Weaving), one of the men who were taken from their families decades earlier. That encounters leads to her being contacted by many other Australians seeking to be reunited with their parents and siblings.
Though the spotlight remains on Humphreys throughout, more and more she shares it with the victims she meets, most notably Len (David Wenham), a no-nonsense fellow who was among the boys sent to a remote Christian Brothers school where they were forced to do heavy labor and, as some of those interviewed by Margaret reveal, were sexually abused. Well-to-do Len has apparently come to terms with his experience, even becoming a major donor to the Brothers, but eventually he seek Humphreys’ help in finding his mother and ultimately takes her to visit the order’s massive community, built largely by the children put in their charge—a confrontation fraught with simmering tension.
“Oranges and Sunshine”—a title derived from the promised “god life” in Australia—follows the vicissitudes of Humphrey’s long campaign to uncover the truth, stymied by official obstruction and by hate-filled assaults from people who feel that she’s attacking them (and the Christian Brothers) for having taken the children in the first place. And, in the usual fashion, it takes time to depict the effect of her crusade on her own family, understanding husband Merv (Richard Dillane) and their two children, leading her to wonder whether she should continue her work or not.
But the emphasis remains on the deportees and their stories, and Weaving and Wenham, as well as others who offer brief recollections, bring authenticity to the varied responses they have toward the wrongs done them. The result is manipulative but moving; and unlike most films of this type, it maintains a somber tone of sad resignation to the end, avoiding the usual triumphalist close.
It does, however, offer as a postscript an excerpt from the 2010 speech by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in which he apologized to the deportees and their families for the treatment they received from their government—well-intentioned, perhaps, but misguided. Better late than never, as they say.