Monday, November 26, 2012

DVD Movie: Oranges and Sunshine 2010

In 1986, Margaret Humphreys was a child protection officer working in Nottingham, England. Incredibly, she stumbled upon one of the most astonishing and horrendous secrets safeguarded by the British government for over eighty years. In the movie which is based her book, Empty Cradle, one day after work Margaret is approached by a woman by the name of Charlotte, asking her to help her locate her family. Charlotte had been visiting from Australia where she lives and she tells Margaret that all she knows is that she, along with a large group of children, were sent over by ship in the 1940s and 50s to Australia. Charlotte was four years old at the time. She was told her mother had died and she was unsure of her true name and her birth date.

At first Margaret is reluctant to get involved until one day in her post-adoption group therapy session, one of the attendees, Nikki, tells the group that out of the blue she got a letter from someone claiming to be her brother Jack and that he lived in Australia. Nikki cannot understand how this can be. As she tells the group more, Margaret realizes that this must be more than a coincidence and she decides that she must look into what is going on.

Margaret researches Charlottes birth certificate and manages to track down her mother, reuniting the two women. When she meets Charlottes mother, Margaret learns that she had been told her daughter was adopted out to a family.  She never knew her daughter had been sent to Australia. And she had always hoped to get her daughter back, not see her adopted out.

Margaret eventually meets Nikki's brother Jack, who seems devastated over what happened to him. In an attempt to learn more about the children, Margaret flies to Australia on her own time and using her own funds to determine how many other children have had a similar experience and to try to understand the scope of what happened.

Eventually Margaret and her husband, Mervyn uncover a migration scheme so widespread that there is no way the British government could not have known about it.They discover that these "forced migrations" began as early as 1900 and lasted until 1970. During that period of time there were "waves" of forced migrations and there were so many children involved that upper levels of government would have had to have given permission, including the Home Secretary. All of the children were in care and it was evident that these children were systematically deport. These schemes were run by charities and churches, among them, the Christian brothers.

Margaret, through her visits with children who were forcibly sent to Australia, learns that many suffered abuse, both emotional, physical and sometimes sexual, and worked as virtual slaves. Some received little educating and were basically indentured slaves. All this despite being told they were going to a warm country where there was plenty of sunshine and they could pick oranges off the trees.

Margaret attempts to get the organizations involved in the migrations to accept responsibility and acknowledge that they did a great wrong to these adult children and their families. It took 23 years before the British and Australian government finally issued an apology for the child migration schemes. More than 130,000 children had been deported. Margaret, with the help of her husband, continue their work today of helping reunite children with their families.

Oranges and Sunshine deals with this difficult subject in a forthright way but one that also demonstrates how the forced child migration affected the children, their mothers and how it continues to affect them to this day. Emily Watson does a stellar job portraying Margaret Humphreys in a performance filled with intelligence, gentleness and subdued passion. She is never deterred from her mission of finding these "lost children" even when her personal safety is at stake. Eventually the stress of dealing with so many people who have been hurt takes its toll on Margaret and she is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She tries to keep her distance and set personal boundaries but the breadth and depth of the tragedy is so overwhelming that she is unable to accomplish this. Watson conveys this with such utter realism that we forget we are watching a movie.

The effect of her work is especially well portrayed in the scenes with Len (David Wenham) near the end of the movie. Len is a man who has been deeply affected by his experiences; by his own admission he stopped crying at the age of eight. Wealthy enough to afford a private detective to find his mother, he is at first doubtful of Margaret's intentions and her ability. Yet after finding his mother for him, Margaret is challenged by Len to go to Boys Town at Bindoon to see what he and other child migrants experienced. She doesn't want to but in the end she agrees. Bindoon is in the middle of nowhere, and as Margaret and Len look down from afar at Boys Town, we see a colossal structure built by child migrants who were at the mercy of the Christian Brothers and who suffered some of the worst abuse.The cinematography effectively captures the isolation and the fear these children must have felt as they saw themselves being driven far from any town or village.

When Margaret sees this place she is terribly shattered because she feels that what she is doing is not enough. But Len tells her, "You feel it for all of us because we can't...You're in there for us. You're fighting for us. So let the rest go. Just let it go."

Oranges and Sunshine is based on the book, Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphreys. The film was produced by Emile Sherman and Camilla Bray who also produced The King's Speech. The Oranges and Sunshine website has more information on the making of the film and the actors involved.

Those interested in reading more about this topic, the Child Migrants Trust website will be most useful.

The Australian National Maritime Museum has an exhibit entitled, "On their own - Britain's child migrants". This website has an interesting video on the exhibition.

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