Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A new Loach hits the scene with Brit/Aussie buried scandal tale ORANGES & SUNSHINE

Well, he's new to us Americans, at least.  Jim Loach, the son of famed political filmmaker Ken Loach, has been laboring in the vineyards of British television for more than a decade. Now, his first motion picture, ORANGES AND SUNSHINE -- all about a long-buried British and Australian scandal so egregious, nasty and needless that it seems almost perverse -- makes its debut on our shores this Friday. The apple, it would seem, does not fall far, though Loach fils (on the basis of this film, anyway) may appear more like a tart Granny Smith than the Golden Delicious of some of his dad's recent films.

I suspect that Mr. Loach's (the filmmaker is shown at left) well documented tale will seem as shocking to many viewers as it does to the social worker and main character of his movie, Margaret Humphreys, who first falls upon information that brings the tale to light. Played (about about as well as you can imagine any actress doing it) by Emily Watson (shown below), Mrs. Humphreys initially refuses to believe what she is learning but soon finds that she has uncovered a seemingly bottomless barrel of government shame, both in Britain -- where children, evidently deemed unworthy of being British, were packed off as "orphans" (many, if not most of them, were not) to Australia -- where, in many cases, they became nearly lifetime indentured servants.

What makes the story so shocking is that all this happened to not just a few but literally thousands of children; that it took place not back in those dark and untutored times of the 18th or 19th centuries but in our own 20th Century; and that the guilty party was not some third world piker but the British Empire, upon which, they used to say, the sun never set. Once you see this film, you may find yourself wondering it ever should have risen.

The film's title Oranges and Sunshine sounds so upbeat that I fear some viewers may enter the theater expecting a feel-good film. (Those words come from one of the children, now an old adult, who recalls being told that these were the things in store for him when he reached Australia. Good laugh, that.) Instead you might better call this a feel-bad film, for in its exploration of the numerous tales told in the 107-minute running time, we are left with what feels like open wound after open wound, with damn little healing in sight.

This is to the film's credit but it is not likely to endear it to audiences hoping to discover another King's Speech (perhaps you, as I, have noticed references to last year's Academy Award-winner in this film's marketing). Instead of concentrating on a single story of one of these aged children trying to discover his/her true history, Loach, together with screenwriter Rona Munro, divides our time between three different characters --  two men (played by Hugo Weaving, above with Ms Watson and further above, center; and David Wenham, below and further below) and one woman -- and then, to a lesser extent, on another handful of these now-grown children.

This gives the movie a breadth than a single story could never have managed, but over time it begins to dilute our involvement. So many sad stories, so little time. Interestingly, the movie forces us to empathize, just as Mrs Humphreys must do (and must have done and continues to do: She's still at it), and this is almost more than any one person's empathy quotient can handle. Ms Watson is aces at expressing this empathy, which eventually -- due to government obstruction, an impossible work load and the concerns of her own family (now much less looked-after) -- begins to shade into something like anger.

As the film moved forward, I found myself wishing that the writer and director could have given it clearer form and shape, with a little less of the usual scene in which the "lone, unprotected woman is menaced in the night" and perhaps more "oomph" to one of the final confrontations during which Watson and Wenham visit the church school/home (below) at which so many of the bizarre and terrible things took place. Still, this might just have pushed things too far in the direction of the feel-good, tying up too neatly story strands based on real life that, in reality, would not be. Adults whose lives have been wasted, taken from them, as shown here -- even those who are able to connect to the past during their senior years -- cannot be blamed for their anger, depression or unquenchable feeling of loss. These the movie delivers in spades,  feel-good be damned.

Oranges and Sunshine, distributed by the Cohen Media Group, open this Friday, October 21, in New York City (at Cinemas 1 2 3 and the AMC Loews Village VII) and Los Angeles (at The Landmark). Other playdates will follow, nationwide, in the weeks to come. Go to the CMG website and navigate as best you can in order to find them....

No comments: