In the 1980s, British social worker Margaret Humphreys uncovered a secret. Her government had sent hundreds of children to Australia. Supposedly orphaned, these kids were sent to be adopted by Australian parents, though some wound up in orphanages instead. Turns out, the kids weren’t necessarily orphans. If their parents turned up to reclaim them, they were told their kids had already been adopted. In fact they’d vanished into a child migration scheme that was kept quiet for decades. Humphreys set out to reunite these displaced children, scattered across Australia over decades, with parents who might still be living in Britain. Neither country wanted to take any responsibility, of course.
Margaret Humphreys is a real woman who took this on herself because she saw the injustice, and people’s pain, and she decided to do something about it. She was threatened and abused because she was exposing some very dirty secrets covered up by some very powerful people. The only help she ever got was from the adoptees themselves, all of them different shades of broken, harbouring the wounded children within. The real Margaret was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1993, and Commander of the British Empire in 2011 for her work, but as this film can attest, life was not made easy for her.
I believe that we can’t start healing from a trauma until the truth of the injury is admitted. This story was quite shameful on Australian and Britain, but they’re not the only ones with blemishes. Here in Canada we have our own sorrow. We call it the 60s scoop though it’s much broader than that. It refers to the over-eager removal of Aboriginal children from their homes. In some cases removal may have been appropriate, but others not, and in any case, the children weren’t just taken from their parents, but from the culture. They were raised off-reserve, losing their language and their identity, breaking social and familial bonds. Although not deported, these kids also lost more than just their parents.
In Oranges and Sunshine, Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, and she does the formidable woman justice. Watson always does, doesn’t she? Hugo Weaving plays Jack, the adoptee through whom we experience the grief and loss of the process. Seeing it from both their perspectives keeps the film balanced; this is not merely an interesting case, but a personal and painful journey that doesn’t guarantee a happy ending for everyone. It’s not a flashy movie. It’s mostly fact-based. But it is sincere and at times quite powerful.