Around about 1994 I was browsing in New Edition bookshop in Fremantle and picked up a copy of Margaret Humphreys‘ book Empty Cradles. I glanced at the beginning, began reading and was hooked. I bought the book, took it home and read it straight through. Now that compelling, horrifying, compasionate book has made it to the screen as the equally compelling, horrifying, compassionate film Oranges and Sunshine.
This is the story of the foundation of the Child Migrants Trust. Of how, in 1986, Nottingham Social worker Margaret Humphreys’ work with adoptees led her to two women who’s lives had been devastated by forced child migration. At first skeptical that Britain could’ve sent children across the world without parents or foster families, Margaret (Emily Watson), with the support of her husband Merv (Richard Dillane) works to find the women’s families. To help them she visits Australia and makes the discovery that child migration affected more than just a handful of children. Her work snowballs as more and more “orphans” (as they were called, though many had parents living) come forward for assistance. David Wenham and Hugo Weaving play Len and Jack, two of these damaged men, men who were promised the “Oranges and Sunshine” of the title, but for whom the reality was hardship and abuse. Margaret and Merv’s lives are taken over by the the quest to find the now grown children’s families before it is too late.
Directed by Jim Loach (son of Ken Loach) Oranges and Sunshine is a brilliant recreation of the mood of the book, the acting is understated, with Watson, Wenham and Weaving conveying worlds of emotion in the tiniest gesture. My only quibble is that as a West Australian I had some trouble accepting Adelaide and South Australia as stand-ins for Perth and Western Australia (I had the same problem with Shine) but it’s not a criticism of this brilliant and moving film.
Margaret’s work for Child Migrants was recognised in Australia in 1993 when she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia, and in Britain this year (2011) when she received a CBE. The West Australian Government apologised to Child Migrants for their treatment in 1998, the Australian Government in 2009, and the British Government in 2010.
Go and see Oranges and Sunshine – no Australian or Briton should miss it.
I’ll leave you with another moving tribute to Child Migrants, Charity and Ghosts by the Stillsons.