The true story that inspired “Oranges & Sunshine,” the directorial debut of Jim Loach, begs for dramatic interpretation. Set in 1986 Nottingham, it follows social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) as she uncovers a hidden multi-decade history in which the United Kingdom deported children to Australia, where they were often raised in abusive labor conditions. Working from Rona Munro’s understated screenplay, Loach gives the material a purposeful feel and avoids excessively sentimentalizing it. The events do that on their own.
Eschewing epic flashbacks for heartfelt testimonials and Watson’s admirably restrained performance, Loach creates an aura of reverence for Humphreys’ illuminating research. The movie only suffers from not elaborating on the potential it creates when Humphreys manages to attract media attention. Loach’s straightforward approach underserves the subject matter, a strategy that might have worked better if “Oranges and Sunshines” were a documentary. In this case, however, the talking heads play a supporting role to prop up the character’s mounting anger.
The director is the son of Ken Loach, the reigning king of British working-class cinema, and his sympathy for lower-class struggles can be felt in “Oranges & Sunshine.” As Humphreys begins to interrogate traumatized adults about their neglected childhoods, tracking down the parents they lost long ago, the story focuses less on the series of testimonials and the developing effect they have on Humphreys’ personal life and emotional stability. Even she has a problem with that: “Nothing happened to me,” Humphreys says, coming to grips with her debilitating state. “It happened to them.” Nevertheless, Watson’s measured performance makes her sponge-like ability to absorb of their grief especially credible.
However, even that angle has little payoff. Once the stories take their toll on Humphreys’ mind, “Oranges & Sunshine” has little else to say. Loach repeatedly uses an effective cross-cutting technique to show how the memories of previously abused children bear down on the woman as she continues her research, but that approach eventually strains. Grown victims of the government’s old scheme, including a snarky loner played by David Wenham and a crestfallen Hugo Weaving, prop up Humphreys’ grief. A mother of two children herself, she struggles to reconcile her stable existence with the many problems she’s witnessed. Her face expresses more than she can put into words.
Humphreys’ activism never flags, even when fearing for her life and faced with mounting pressure to give up her mission. However, the movie valorizes her efforts to the detriment of its the more eventful moments, where she uncovers details from the past. It’s hard not to imagine a Ken Loach film about the same topic where those details would matter so much more than the quest to gather them. Of course, it might take time for Jim Loach to catch up with his father’s track record; “Oranges & Sunshine” is a good place to start.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? “Oranges & Sunshine” opens today at New York’s City Cinema and AMC Village 7, as well as the Landmark Center and Landmark’s Santa Monica in Los Angeles. Released by Cohen Media Group, it’s unlikely to do strong commercial business in the U.S., but helps put Loach on the map as a new talent to watch.