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Movie Review

Oranges and Sunshine

‘Oranges and Sunshine’ examines the tale of nation’s shameful secret

Emily Watson stars as social worker Margaret Humphreys in “Oranges and Sunshine.’’ Emily Watson stars as social worker Margaret Humphreys in “Oranges and Sunshine.’’ (Cohen Media Group)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / November 4, 2011

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For some two decades after World War II, the British government sent an estimated 130,000 children to various Commonwealth countries, most controversially Australia. Some were orphans, others the children of single mothers. Mothers would be told their child had been put up for adoption or had died. Once abroad, the children would be put in institutions. The host countries welcomed the children as a means of population increase. For Britain, it was a way to lower the cost of social services.

In 1986, an English social worker, Margaret Humphreys, stumbled upon this policy, which had never been publicized. She began an effort, which continues today, to expose the policy and reunite the grown children with surviving family members.

Emily Watson plays Humphreys in “Oranges and Sunshine.’’ The title comes from what one of the children, now grown, remembers they were told they’d find upon arrival in Australia. Humphreys’s nobility is never in doubt (“I’ve been summoned,’’ she says at one point, and means it). Has Watson’s naturally mischievous face ever had to look so consistently pinched? But she doesn’t have the noblest role in the movie. That would be Humphreys’s husband (Richard Dillane), who holds down the familial fort with their two kids during her frequent trips to Australia.

Seen strictly in terms of narrative, this is not promising material. The only thing worse than a faceless bureaucracy as a villain is a faceless bureaucracy whose sins are 20 or 30 years in the past. Yet just because a story would seem lacking in inherent drama doesn’t mean a compelling movie can’t be made from it. Two recent, and very different, examples would be “The Social Network’’ and “Moneyball.’’ And “Oranges and Sunshine’’ has a moral gravity far surpassing anything in either movie, and great reservoirs of emotion to tap into. There are several dramatic reunion scenes (Hugo Weaving, with a terrific beard, and David Wenham are two of the grown-up children), and Humphreys suffers the conflicting pull of pursuing her cause and attending to her family.

Yet neither Rona Munro’s script nor Jim Loach’s direction (the son of Ken Loach, he’s carrying on the family trade) provides tension or momentum. “I can’t stand Mother’s Day,’’ Weaving confides to Watson. “I get the same feeling every year, like someone’s twisting a knife inside me.’’ The sincerity of feeling is unmistakable. So’s the flat-footedness of the writing.

The road to movies like “Oranges and Sunshine’’ is paved with good intentions, and that road is exceedingly flat. Admirable as earnestness is in life, it’s death to art. “Oranges and Sunshine’’ is like a Mike Leigh movie drained of all its bodily fluids.

Just before “Oranges and Sunshine’’ ends, Loach includes a snippet of black-and-white newsreel footage. Its inclusion says a lot about what’s best and what’s worst about the movie. The footage shows a group of children disembarking from a ship. No adults are present. It looks like the late ’40s or early ’50s. Those few documentary seconds are utterly heartbreaking. They communicate the movie’s emotional purpose with absolute force. Which makes their presence artistically disastrous. The images have a power nothing in the 100 minutes preceding them approaches.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

ORANGES AND SUNSHINE Directed by: Jim Loach

Written by: Rona Munro

Starring: Emily Watson, David Wenham, Hugo Weaving, Richard Dillane

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 106 minutes

Rated: R (language, descriptions of child sexual abuse)

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