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Posts Tagged ‘David Wenham’

Even though I am only a pretend film critic (yes, that’s right, I pretend to watch them, then pretend to write about them, and if you’ve any sense you’ll only pretend to read the results) occasional issues approaching actual seriousness do occasionally occur to me. For instance: should all films be judged by the same standard? Well, regular readers may recall I’ve already said that one shouldn’t judge older movies by their production values, so in one sense I feel that would be a mistake. But what about the nature of the film? Should that make a difference?

Off down to the arthouse once again, this time to see the debut feature of Jim Loach, son of veteran lefty film-maker and national treasure Ken. It may well come as a surprise to learn that Loach’s movie is a 3D part-animated kung fu adventure set in post-apocalyptic Texas, starring Milla Jovovich… heh, heh. Just my little joke, readers. No, it’s exactly the kind of film you’d expect, given his heritage: a thoughtful, low-key and quietly angry film about the lives of real people: Oranges and Sunshine.

Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, a social worker in the midlands in the mid 80s, part of whose job involves working with adoptees. One night she is approached out of the blue by a middle-aged woman, who wants her help in tracing her roots: she claims to have been sent to Australia as a young child, along with hundreds of other British infants. Margaret dismisses her story as impossible: unescorted children would not be sent abroad like this. Yet details of other cases reach her, and she is forced to accept that, unknown to the vast majority of the public in either country, the systematic deportation of British children to Australia went on for decades. Some of these children still had parents alive in the UK when they were sent abroad – in some cases they were told their parents were dead. The parents were told their children had been adopted.

Margaret’s full-time job now becomes trying to help the former child migrants piece together their UK roots and, where possible, put them back in touch with their birth families. But the nature of the work and the strong emotions it inevitably stirs up takes a gruelling toll on her and her family.

I probably need to stress again that this is a true story, and that the deportations involved only stopped in 1970 – less than twenty years before Margaret Humphreys uncovered the truth of the scheme. It sounds like the stuff of an absurd conspiracy thriller, and in its opening section Oranges and Sunshine indeed resembles something of the sort: the mysterious stranger stuffing a folder of notes into the lead’s hands, which will prove to be the start of a trail leading to the incredible truth, the painstaking research… and while it lasts this style is very effective.

However, just at the point when you expect Watson’s character to be warned off by her boss, and a cover-up to be attempted, the film takes an abrupt left turn: her employers fully support her in her work, and the film becomes much more about the stories of the Humphreys and a handful of individual migrants. This seems partly to be a matter of necessity – there’s less material in the political angle, and no-one seems to know who was entirely responsible for the perpetuation of this scheme – and partly a deliberate choice on the part of the film-makers. I must admit I found the film slightly less involving once it made this transition.

That’s not to say it isn’t still extremely watchable. More than anything else, this is an actor’s film – Watson is extremely solid at the centre of it, but also delivering remarkable performances are Hugo Weaving and David Wenham. I wonder what it says about modern cinema that these two very fine actors are best known for appearing in films about elves, vampires, rogue computer programs and talking pigs? I’m not sure, but they’re both superb here: I’m not ashamed to admit that Weaving’s performance as a man desperately seeking his birth parents virtually moved me to tears. Wenham is arguably even better in a rather more complex role, as a man who’s led an impossibly hard life but refuses to play the victim or indulge in self-pity: ‘I had to stop crying when I was eight. I wouldn’t know how to start, now,’ he says, matter-of-factly.

Good though the performances are, and however potent the film’s emotional core is, it’s still the case that… well, I can imagine my former writing tutor watching this film and complaining throughout that there’s no mid-point, no climax, no resolution… Oranges and Sunshine may be based on true stories but it somehow doesn’t quite hang together as a cinematic narrative. The different strands don’t really interconnect all that much. One of them eventually becomes central – the story of a group of boys sent to a religious orphanage with a particularly baleful reputation – but even then it doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, and it seems uncomfortably as if the film-makers (Loach and his script-writer, Rona ‘If we fight like animals, we die like animals’ Munro) have just fixed upon a case of church-related child abuse as something to give the end of the movie a little more oomph – and it almost overshadows the experiences of the other migrants, which is surely not what they intended.

And, as I say, there isn’t really a climax to speak of. The film makes it clear that the work of the Humphreys and their supporters continues to this day, and that in the years since the events of the film the two governments responsible have issued an apology – but there’s very little sense of closure at its conclusion. This is a very technically proficient movie, and intelligent enough to present its story in an understated fashion. It looks like a movie, as opposed to a TV drama, and no matter what the Australian government makes of it their tourist board will doubtless be delighted too.

However, to return to my opening question, should a fact-based drama like this be held to the same standards of storytelling as a piece of fiction? If so, then I would have to focus on the flaws in Oranges and Sunshine’s structure and narrative, and say that on several level this film is unsatisfying and disjointed. But the performances are so strong, the emotional content so powerful, and the story the film tells so important and shocking that there may be a case for arguing that in this instance the conventional standards should not fully apply. I’m not sure I know either way. But I would suggest that, should you be interested in deciding for yourself, you take a look at this movie: its possible flaws should not overshadow the definite quality of its performances and ambition.

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