Oranges and Sunshine

3 Dec

Title: Oranges and Sunshine
Year: 2011
Director: Jim Loach
Writer: Rona Munro, based on the book by Margaret Humphreys
Starring: Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham
MPAA Rating: R, some strong language
Runtime: 105 min
Major Awards: –
IMDb Rating: 7.1
Rotten Tomatoes: 69%


After seeing Margin Call earlier today, the stunning debut film from J.C. Chandor that currently sits at 15th on my 2011 rankings, I thought I should check out another debut effort, this time one by Jim Loach, Ken Loach’s son. And while the two films couldn’t be more different, and this one doesn’t come close to matching the heights achieved by Margin Call, it’s still a pretty solid debut that shows promise for the son of one of Ireland’s best filmmakers. I mean, there are times in which Mr. Loach just doesn’t handle the pacing well at all, and the script has some rather cheesy moments we could have certainly done without, but the fact of the matter is that if you have such a gutwrenching real life story to draw from, and the always superb Emily Watson to do her usual magic in the leading role, you’re bound to get something worth your while.

Because it’s that main performance by Ms. Watson that holds this one together, more often than not the film will start jumping from Britan to Australia like crazy, trying to go faster than it can in order to accommodate many subplots, but the fact that you have such a proven actress in the center, delivering a really calm and solid performance is enough to ground this one. This is, after all, the story of a very tragic chapter in the history of both Britain and Australia, one that happened in the forties, fifties and as recently as the mid-sixties, one that dealt with thousands of really young British kids that were separated from poor families or single mothers, being shipped to Australia to work in church-led institutions that demanded hard work from them and many times abused and raped them. This wasn’t an underground operation though, no, it was the job of social workers of the time, that assured the families the children were being set up to live better lives and offered no information after that.

So you can gather how this can be a story that would be quick to bring a tear or two to your eyes, as Ms. Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, the real-life social worker out of Nottingham that was the one in charge of exposing these crimes in the mid-eighties, nearly half a century after they had started (the governments only formally apologized for them just a couple of years ago). It started when she meets a woman who tells her she just wants to know who she is, after she’s been told stories about her mother that don’t add up. After Humphreys discovers the woman’s mother was still alive, and not dead like she had been led to believe, and reunites the two she starts realizing that maybe she’s just stumbled into something that’s bigger than this one case.

The best thing I can say about how Mr. Loach directed this film, and it’s a quality that would no doubt make his great father proud, is that he never once tried to mine this material for cheap shocks or tears which would have been an easy way out and simple to achieve. I mean, there are moments in which the script is clichéd, that’s true, but you never get an overly dramatized look at the obstacles that Humphreys encounters along the way, nor is she ever seen as this hero, she’s just a woman who’s as outraged as we are when watching the film, finding out about such horrid injustices having been enabled by her government.

This is a really understated performance by Ms. Watson, a beautiful thing to watch from an actress who can be so good when playing a delicate type but who’s amazing as well here playing a stronger character, a woman that lives for her cause and will do anything for it. And it’s good that the movie really does focus quite so much on her cause, many films would have taken the Hallmark Movie approach and given Ms. Watson powerful speeches to be made every ten minutes, and overemotionalized the reunion scenes between siblings of parents and their children. The fact that these scenes are given to us with such quiet restraint only make them better, and don’t take away from Humphreys’ mission.

Hugo Weaving is also here, as the man who delivers the line that gives the film its title, a kid who was once promised to live in a land full of sunshine, picking oranges. He’s the brother of one of the women that come to Humphreys to help them find their relatives, and once they find him he introduces her to others that suffered a similar fate as his, visiting the Christian Brothers school where he grew up, abused and raped by the brothers. There’s a scene in which Ms. Watson walks in on the brothers at their teatime, asks them if anyone wants to talk about the past, about what went on in that place, the quiet reactions of the brothers, none of them meeting her gaze, say it all.

This is a good film, a solid debut from Mr. Loach, one with a script that could have been much better as far as how it handled the pacing and how it went from Britain to Australia, and its clichés are what prevented me from really getting into this one, but that thanks to a steady directorial hand that wasn’t interested in gratuitous emotions and a fantastic lead performance the film kept itself firmly grounded.

Grade: B


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