For his first feature as a director, Jim Loach has told a story that may well have appealed to his father. Oranges and Sunshine is a film that exposes a shocking injustice and sets personal stories against a backdrop of major real-life events. The film opens with a scene that depicts a social worker taking a child away from its unfit mother, a scene that immediately recalls Ken Loach's films Cathy Come Home and Ladybird, Ladybird, but perhaps comparisons between the older and younger Loaches are unfair. Oranges and Sunshine is a confident and engrossing picture that deserves to be considered on its own merits, and while Jim Loach's TV background is evident in the film's conventional structure and lack of a distinctive visual identity, he scores highly in his storytelling and his work with actors.
In an all-too-rare leading role, Emily Watson is excellent as Margaret Humphreys, the Nottingham social worker who uncovered an extraordinary scandal involving thousands of British orphans who had been deported to Australia and placed in the care of the Christian Brothers, where they had often been forced to endure physical labour, harsh conditions and sexual abuse. Many of those who made this journey weren't even orphans; they were simply poor children that had been taken into care, and shipped to the other side of the world without their parents' knowledge. Extraordinarily, this practice, which had begun in the 19th century, was still being quietly sanctioned by the British and Australian governments until the late 1960's.
Oranges and Sunshine covers twenty years of Margaret's crusade to uncover this operation and reunite the now-adult orphans with the parents they never knew they had. The film begins on a small scale, with Margaret meeting an Australian woman who is searching for her mother, before the scope of her mission steadily grows, but Loach never lets the wider historical weight of the story overwhelm the characters. In two of the men Margaret meets in Australia, we can see the lingering shadow that their childhood experiences cast over their lives. Jack, played by an outstanding Hugo Weaving, is introverted and nervous, his emotional scarring clearly visible, while Len (David Wenham) hides his fragility under a brash demeanour. The journey of self-discovery and acceptance that Margaret leads these two men on is genuinely moving, even more so for the understated approach Loach adopts. He largely eschews both major emotional outbursts and strident political statement, instead playing this touching story out in a sensitive and human way that is extremely satisfying.