Judge Bill Gibron recommends this understated look at an otherwise sensational story.
The story behind the scandal…
Margaret Humphries (Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves) is a reserved social worker in late '80s England. As part of a request by an Australian woman to locate her birth mother, our heroine stumbles upon one of the greatest injustices in the history of Britain—the case of the "home children." Founded by Evangelical Quaker Annie MacPherson in 1869, this government policy allowed disenfranchised adolescents, usually from broken or financially distressed homes, to be forcibly removed and shipped off to Australia or Canada. There, the kids would be "adopted" by local charity groups, then turned over to individuals and institutions that often raped and abused them.
Traveling Down Under to investigate, Margaret stumbles upon two former victims, now grown men, who have their own personal ways of dealing with the details. Jack (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix) is filled with anxiety and fear. Len (David Wenham, 300) is overflowing with misplaced bravado. As she battles the various bureaucrats desperate to keep this national black mark a well-hidden secret, Margaret realizes a kind of complicity. While caring and empathetic to those she's "helped," she's been part of similar social strategy for most of her career.
As a docudrama with far more sensational source material than what's delivered on screen and with a deft handling of matters that could have easily turned melodramatic, Oranges and Sunshine is a solid piece of work. Representing the first feature film by son-of-Ken Jim Loach, what begins as a standard social mystery soon turns into an indictment of misguided meddling and institutional horror. Imagine an unwed mother of today, forced to give up her child because of "appearances" and then said baby ending up the fodder for psychological mistreatment, underage labor, and sexual abuse. Many of the home children were put to work building churches and other religious structures under the scorching sun of Australian summers. After breaking their backs all day, the priests and other supposed good guardians did the same to their spirits (and innocence) behind closed doors.
Humphries is not poised to be the typical true story heroine. She's not battling issues at home, nor is she likely to fall for any of the adult men she is trying to help. No, this woman is a stickler for her job and understands both the pros and massive cons of getting personally invested. Watson makes sure to maintain her distance, handling every aspect of this case like a factoid waiting to be entered in her report. We don't see stand offs with prickling supervisors or angry outbursts from those accused. Instead, there is an overwhelming feeling of sadness and loss, a core aesthetic that Loach's approach never wavers from.
One could easily see this story turning into a tortured-soul showboat, various victims paraded out so that their exploitative stories can be visualized for a voyeuristic public. Instead, Oranges and Sunshine uses its main character as a filter, a sane source of information and inspiration. Like most movies of this kind, she proves you can fight the Establishment and win. Similarly, the story reminds us of how many horrors lie waiting in the lost confines of a non-nostalgic, purposely forgotten past.
Presented by Cohen Media Group in a decent Blu-ray package, Oranges and Sunshine looks very good. The 2.35:1/1080p high definition widescreen image is under lit at times, but this is on purpose. Loach apparently used this approach to mirror the decidedly dark material. But it's not all shadows and sunless days. Instead, the compositional canvas opens up on occasion to highlight the natural beauty of both Australia and England. Sonically, we are spared any massive remaster to keep the film's quiet and considered style front and center. Between the LPCM 2.0 Stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, you'll detect very little difference. Instead, the dialogue is easy to comprehend and the understated mood is maintained throughout. As for added content, we get a pair of featurettes dealing with the cast and crew. Many discuss the home children cause with obvious passion, but some of this material barely broaches its EPK foundations.
Once Humphries' story went public (sometime in the mid to late '90s), the standard news media leapt at the more lurid details. 60 Minutes even did an expose that more or less mirrored the story here. Though it could have been much more seedy, Oranges and Sunshine delivers just the facts in a fine manner…and that's more than enough.
Not guilty—a maddening, meaningful effort.
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