Emily Watson in "Oranges and Sunshine." (Cohen Media Group / Cohen…)
If ever there was a film that would have benefited from some ripped-from-the-headlines fervor, it is "Oranges and Sunshine," starring Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving and David Wenham.
This too-quiet, too-sluggish film tells the nearly unfathomable true story of roughly 130,000 British children, wards of the state in the '40s and '50s, who were told their parents had died and that "oranges and sunshine" awaited them in Australia. Instead, they were shipped Down Under to draconian orphanages where they suffered sexual abuse and were forced into labor. Decades later, Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys (Watson) uncovered and exposed all those dirty little secrets.
It's easy to understand why British director Jim Loach, son of eclectic director Ken ("The Wind That Shakes the Barley," "Looking for Eric"), would want to handle such compelling material carefully. But sometimes the facts can get in the way of the drama, and that's the central problem here. That sense of needing to be true to the record is reflected in an overwhelmed screenplay by Rona Munro, who wrote a 1994 docu-drama about another British miscarriage of justice, "Ladybird Ladybird," directed by the elder Loach.
Things get off to a confusing start with Margaret striding into the projects and removing a baby from a mother's arms. It happens that's just all in a day's work for her and has nothing to do with the forced migrations. If it was meant to give us context, to show that Margaret knows firsthand that sometimes a child must be removed from a home, it doesn't do the trick.
Next, we're dropped into a group-therapy session she apparently runs. Who the participants are or why they have gathered is never clear, except there is a woman who's found a lost brother in Australia who will eventually factor in. The real story begins to emerge only when Margaret is approached after work by one of those now-grown children seeking her help in finding her roots, although how she found Margaret and why she thinks she might help her is yet another loose end.
Before Margaret, and the movie, get to the heart of things, there are trips to the library, hours scouring records and scattered moments with her husband and kids to establish she has a family, and thus her growing obsession, one that will eventually extend over 20-plus years, will come at a cost.
The film finally begins to gain traction as Margaret decamps with increasing frequency to Australia to see if she can reconnect these damaged adults with their families back in England. As their stories begin to emerge, horrific and heartbreaking, as reunions are arranged, you can't help but be drawn in.
The push and pull of the film are both internal — from the deported — and external, from the various institutions unwilling to take responsibility for what happened. (It was only last year that the British prime minister issued a public apology; Australia's came in 2009.)
Things are somewhat helped by Hugo Weaving ("The Matrix," "Lord of the Rings" trilogy) and veteran Australian actor David Wenham ("Public Enemies," "Lord of the Rings"). As Jack and Len, two of the deported youngsters now grown, their stories and their personalities become an amalgam of all the taken. Wenham, as the irascible Len, especially helps take some of the saintly shine off Margaret.
There is a washed-out look about the movie that makes it seem as if the filmmakers have stumbled across some old footage in a warehouse, and that certainly adds to its overall sense of melancholy. Watson, perhaps never more memorable than as the tortured young wife in 1996's "Breaking the Waves," seems emotionally drained from the start as well. The few moments of drama and outrage she is allowed bring her to vibrant life. Watching those rare scenes, it's impossible not to wonder what sort of film this might have been had she and the others been given more license to feel.