In the decades following WWII thousands of British children were deported to loveless orphanages and foster homes in Australia. Many of them suffered abuse - and many were not even orphans.
This story was memorably recounted in the TV miniseries The Leaving of Liverpool. Now the journey of Margaret Humphreys, the British social worker who uncovered the scandal and worked to reunite thousands of ‘forgotten children' with their families, has been brought to the screen in Oranges and Sunshine, the feature film debut of accomplished TV director Jim Loach.
"I read Margaret's book nine years ago and went to see her in Nottingham," explains Loach. "We talked and drank a lot of tea and I found the story she had to tell incredible. At that moment I knew I wanted to make a film."
In 1986, Humphreys (played in the movie by Emily Watson) was contacted by an Australian woman claiming she was put on a boat at age four with several hundred other kids and sent to Australia. Incredulous at first, Humphreys starts digging and discovers evidence of an organised government scheme.
Travelling to Australia, Humphreys is staggered by the number of people coming forward for help in discovering their identities. She enounters hostility from organisations such as the Christian Brothers, infamous for their abuse and exploitation of child migrants.
"There was no shortage of material - it was just a question of how to shape it," Loach says. "When Rona Munro [screenwriter] came on board we felt that Margaret had a compelling dilemma. She's trying to uncover the truth and reunite the families, but at the same time she's got her own family that she's trying to keep together."
The range of people helped by Humphreys is focused in the film upon two characters: withdrawn and depressed Jack (Hugo Weaving) and successful businessman Len (David Wenham), who's determined not to be a victim of his past.
"I really wanted David to play that part," says Loach. "Len is based on one former child migrant we met who never wanted any sympathy and had a great sense of humour, which became appealing because it's the reverse of what we expected." Watson was a shoo-in for the part of Humphreys, Loach says, because "she can play compassion without sentiment. Plus we support the same football team."
Arsenal fan Loach admits that comparisons with the socially conscious work of his father, Ken Loach, are inevitable. "Growing up I was encouraged to look outwards not inwards, to read newspapers and engage with the world. But I think that two people will never make the same film. In other respects we're very different directors."
Oranges and Sunshine opens 9 Jun
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