Jim Loach shows it runs in the family with this quiet, searing drama.
Who do we blame when hurt is caused by good intention? Who do we hold to account when things done with noble will go horribly wrong?
These questions, so often ignored, lie at the heart of Oranges and Sunshine, the deeply humanist new British film from director Jim Loach.
As if the pressures aren’t already enough, there is an extra weight of expectancy placed on this debut. The shadow of the director’s father – Ken Loach, the man who gave British cinema the flat-voweled voice of Thatcher’s unwanted citizens – lies across this film.
So Jim Loach has taken on a story that at first glimpse seems mired in his father’s time and place – Nottinghamshire in the 1980s – but is actually searingly of its time.
In February last year Gordon Brown rose to the dispatch box and attempted to explain why tens of thousands of British children were plucked from an over-wrought welfare system, told their mothers and fathers were dead and shipped off to work in the Australian colonies, often ending up as the victims of institutional abuse. Brown offered to help these displaced orphans trace their lost families. Then, on behalf of the country, he apologised unreservedly.
That he did so was largely due to the campaign of social worker Margaret Humphreys, played here with characteristic discretion by the lovely Emily Watson. Humphreys, with the initial backing of the local authorities, spent 23 years listening to the stories of child migrants before searching for their lost parents, and has been gifted a CBE and a biopic for her efforts.
As Loach’s film shows, some of these people have to learn how to live with fathers who walked out, with women who bore them but could not raise them. For others, they had stone graves and hazy anecdotes waiting for comfort; their reunion came too late.
In its depiction of one woman’s assault on the pernicious culture of Government knows best, this could and sometimes threatens to be a triumphalist piece of the individual over establishment.
At its worst, we see slow montages of older Australian men – to whom we are never properly introduced – stuttering and choking as they recall the years of abuse they suffered at the isolated orphanage in which they were raised. This abuse was physical and sexual and to exhume it places the film on precarious ground. Pity can go too far, and misery is cheap and easy; a perishable commodity.
But Loach, in his father’s best tradition, manages to steer the film to the fault-lines of broken restraint, showing wounds that open and close just as quickly. These moments reach out from the screen, like Hugo Weaving’s Jack, his skin like tan leather, his shirt flapping in the sea breeze – living, in image alone, the Australian dream – telling Watson’s Margaret he doesn’t know where he came from, or even who he is. Or David Wenham’s Len, the macho man who can go it alone before revealing a nervous boy beneath as he approaches the house of the mother he never knew he had.
This is softly rendered, and not exactly interrogative. Margaret Humphreys is held aloft in her simple goodness (“I don’t ever lie,” she says to a heckling woman, placing a measured emphasis on each word that we’re never given cause to question), and as the film rushes to its climax, it begins to veer from knock-out scene to knock-out scene, unravelling some of the sensitivities and carefully posed questions of its earlier acts.
But no matter. This is a film of brevity, depth and regard; desperately sad, but as clear and honest as a voice across water. Ken, the boy’s done you proud.