Oranges and Sunshine – Jim Loach
Hypocrisy is the besetting vice of the English. Many of our greatest writers, like George Eliot and Dickens knew this and created some of the squirmyest hypocrites in fiction: from the Rev Edward Casaubon and Nicholas Bulstrode in Middlemarch to David Copperfield’s Uriah Heep. Fans of Austen could easily make their own list.
One can only imagine the holier-than-thou moral certitudes that led a post-war government in collusion with largely religious-based charities, to decide that compulsorily deporting 130,000 unaccompanied children, some as young as 4, to Australia would be ‘for their own benefit’. Many of these children’s parents were still alive but had committed the cardinal sins of being poor, unemployed, or one suspects most shockingly of all, unmarried.
The only disappointing thing in Jim Loach’s excellent, deeply moving film Oranges and Sunshine about this shameful episode in post-war British history is that we do have to imagine the pin-striped prurience and specious moral sensibilities of the men and women who convinced themselves they were ‘doing the right thing’. This because the groups of people responsible for the systematic cruelty, abuse and suffering of this horrifyingly large number of children, are not the central focus of Rona Munro’s script and therefore Loach’s film.
Oranges and Sunshine poses a difficult question precisely because it is a sincere, deeply felt – good – film: do some narratives, true stories, especially of injustice and suffering, impose a moral responsibility on an artist wanting to create a work of art from them? On one level the answer to this is clearly yes: an obvious serious example being David Irving’s Holocaust-denying books on the ‘history’ of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. Other examples might be say the frequent literary and cinematic trivialisation and character assassination of historical figures like Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King etc.
In these cases the issue seems comfortably black and white and I guess the ethical concept that mediates our judgment beyond the specifics of each is that of truth. On this ground Loach and his film have impeccable credentials: just as his social worker heroine Margaret Humphreys meticulously sought out the truth about the deportees’ families and tenaciously uncovered the shameful and shamefully hidden lies they had been told, so Loach has met the same standard in his research for the film. He has also managed the most difficult task of the dramatized documentary form: to offer enough factual detail along with the emotional narrative of the main characters to authenticate both.
But Rona Munro’s screenplay places two issues at the heart of Oranges and Sunshine: Margaret Humphreys’ dedicated journey of discovery on behalf of the thousands of children so cruelly and unjustly treated; and the conflict this created for her in having the time to sustain her marriage and responsibilities to her own family and children. This as Loach has said, is the story they wanted to tell, the film they wanted to make. This is such an extraordinary, inspirational narrative that one can hardly cavil at its attraction to a film-maker. Unquestionably Margaret Humphreys’ hitherto unknown story deserves to be known and in its telling in a commercially distributed film, attention is rightly drawn to the appalling events which were the context and occasion of her compassion, commitment and courage.
And yet, and yet: having seen the film twice now – like everyone else, I am drawn into the heartbreaking cases on which Loach focuses. Brother and sister Jack (Hugo Weaving) and Nikki (Lorraine Ashbourne) each unaware of the other’s existence for decades before Margaret (a powerfully reticent performance from Emily Watson) re-connects them. Their subsequent joint search for their mother with Margaret’s help is part of the emotional tension of the film. Equally touching but different, there is Len (David Wenham), hostile, suspicious, full of the repression of self-preservation who becomes a key figure in Margaret’s journey. This wary, spiky, sometimes quirky relationship adds another emotional layer as we see that through his struggle to permit Margaret to be the first adult he has ever trusted in his life, Len’s journey is not just to try to find and form a relationship with his mother; but to find and form a balanced relationship with himself.
It is well into the film that on first viewing I felt some unease. And it was only on second viewing that I became a little clearer about the nature of that unease. As we begin to see more and more, the kind of exploitation, emotional cruelty and inevitably horrific physical and sexual abuse visited on these children, one’s emotional identification with their unhappiness and loss; one’s compassion for their story becomes overwhelmed by a deep and escalating anger at the unspeakable human beings who visited such cruelty upon them. As it is precisely the steady, underplayed accumulation of facts that Loach and Munro have assembled that generates this anger within us, it seems churlish to then criticize what they do with the emotions they have provoked. To do so is to hold them to a very high standard indeed – but why not? This is a deeply committed film. It is no insult to a director with serious artistic aspiration, as here, to suggest that a good film could have been excellent or an excellent film could have been great.
As the film begins to reveal to us the institutionalized, systematic inhumanity, to which these innocent, helpless children were subjected, for decades; I’m afraid being moved, feeling compassionate just isn’t enough. Loach, Munro and the cast have quietly and painstakingly engaged us fully in the narrative of these helpless victims: of hypocrisy, cruelty, and the worst kinds of abuse but they then, for me don’t follow the internal emotional truth of their own film. They have generated a passionate anger and sense of injustice in their audience which they do not address. The emotional tone of the narrative then becomes unbalanced: there is an artistic need to adjust this to reflect the changed emotional power precisely generated by the film to that point.
There are three distinct groups of people culpable for the shameful events in Oranges and Sunshine: the hypocritical, morally holier-than-thou politicians, civil servants and especially officers of largely religious-based charities who sent these children, unaccompanied and unprotected to a fate they didn’t even trouble themselves to verify. Then there were the Australian authorities who permitted the children to be used as virtual slave-labour and through indifference and neglect exposed them to exactly the sexual and physical abuse only too predictable in an often wicked world. And finally, in many ways worse, much worse, was the institutionalized, emotional, physical and systematic sexual abuse Len and several other of our main characters suffered at the hands of the Religious Brothers at Bindoon the remote residential school and home they were first forced to build: and then abused within, isolated, trapped and with nowhere to go, no one to turn to.
Loach and Munrow have led us powerfully to the point where we are screaming inside: “why?”, “how?”, ”how could you?”, “how was it possible?”. Now I don’t expect simple answers to these questions: but the very effectiveness of the film’s narrative demands, that within the context of its own emotional rationale, within its own narrative, Civil Servants, Charity workers, Children’s Home Officers and most of all Priests and the Church should be questioned, asked, investigated with the same degree of rigour as the search-for-their-parents emotional thread of the movie receives.
This didn’t have to be aggressive, polemical ranting or even politically focussed. The excellent, recently released factual documentary The Inside Job about the behaviour and attitudes that brought about the recent economic crash offers a clue. Here the main protagonists are quietly but firmly and rigorously questioned about their actions, their rationale, their motivations. Gradually many of these men who have behaved shamefully get angry, refuse to answer, offer laughably implausible justifications, or are reduced to an embarrassed impotent silence when confronted with their own venality. They are allowed to condemn themselves out of their own mouths.
The scene in Bindoon where Len takes Margaret to see the place and confronts the religious brothers simply with her accusatory presence, is a beautifully conceived, written and performed scene. But it simply isn’t enough. It is too restrained, too discreet; in tone it belongs to the earlier part of the film. Paradoxically Loach has himself generated the irresistible need for an emotional intensification here which he does not meet.
As an aside without knowing the facts I find myself wondering as I write this why I do not know, as one suspects, whether Bindoon was a Catholic institution. If it was: then we should know it was. In the face of the horrific issues here, if there was any form of nicety or legal discretion about this that would be a profound betrayal of these children’s narrative and damage the ethical and artistic integrity of the film. I don’t know, so in no way is it an accusation, but the capacity of the Catholic Church as an institution, not as a faith, to soak up, absorb and defuse criticism to protect itself borders on the miraculous.
So I come back to my question: do the narratives of some peoples’ subjection to systematic abuse, injustice and cruelty impose a moral responsibility on the artist who fashions a work of art from them?
I think Oranges and Sunshine is a sincere, committed, deeply moving film displaying fine writing, acting and directing. But I cannot help feeling that the essence of Margaret Humphrey’s narrative is in the end better served than that of the thousands of abused children she dedicated her life to helping. Everything we learn about her in the film would suggest that the real Margaret Humphrey’s would be unhappy if that were the case.
Is this just a critical game? A bit of philosophical play, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing? Well it took 23 years for a grudging apology to be wrung out the governments to these ‘children’. By implication in the 20 years or so since there has been no apology, no clear acknowledgement of culpability from either the Charities or the Catholic Church.
And it is mere empiricism, not prejudice, not hostility to one of the great faiths of the world to observe that in many places in many countries around the world tonight and tomorrow night and the next, children will continue to be profoundly and permanently harmed over half a century later, with the same kind of unspeakable inhumanity by the adults, usually men I must ashamedly confess, who abuse their position and their beliefs in just the same way as was visited upon the real heroes and heroines of Jim Loach’s otherwise fine film.
So yes I think it does matter. Being moved, being touched – isn’t enough: for the facts, for their story or for the Art.