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Director Jim Loach wants audiences to be inspired by the story of Margaret Humphreys and her dogged crusade to reunite families torn apart by authorities in the UK and Australia, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

“Oh that was a momentous day,” says Jim Loach of the day social worker Margaret Humphreys and her family took the train down to London to see the finished film, Oranges and Sunshine, in which she is played by Emily Watson.

“We hadn’t seen each other during production, but we had worked on the screenplay with her, so when she came to see the film, the producers and I sat outside the screening room like naughty schoolchildren … I honestly didn’t know what her reaction would be. Now, looking back, yes, I suppose she would approve. 

“As the end credits rolled, I walked in and asked her, Are we still talking? And she said, Of course we are, and gave me a big hug.”

That was the most crucial reaction for Loach. “If she hadn’t found it truthful I’d have considered the film a failure. And believe me, she would have said …”

"They were promised oranges and sunshine, they got hard labour and life pain."

Loach, on a promotional tour of Australia, had another momentous day screening the film to former child migrants in Australia, the subjects of the film. “I didn’t know how that would go either, but their response was also positive.” (So was his dad’s: iconic filmmaker Ken Loach made the odd suggestion in the cutting room, apparently, and has seen the film several times.)

The story is based on real events. In the late 1980s, Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson), an English social worker in Nottingham discovers a secret that the British government had kept hidden for four decades: 130,000 children in care had been sent abroad to commonwealth countries, mainly Australia. Children as young as four had been told that their parents were dead, and been sent to children's homes on the other side of the world. Instead of being cared for in their new homes, many were subjected to appalling abuse. They were promised oranges and sunshine, they got hard labour and life pain. Margaret attempts to reunite as many families as she can. 

By fateful coincidence, both the UK and Australian Governments issued public apologies to the children – now adults - while this film was being made. “It was just the most bizarre bit of timing,” says Loach, “because it was a project that we’d been working on for years and years. For it all to happen at the same time was really strange.”

"an ordinary person plunged into extraordinary circumstances"

The story is a hero’s journey, but Margaret Humphreys would never see that she was the hero. “Her life changed forever on that rainy evening in Nottingham when a stranger approached her, asking for help to find her mother,” says Loach, who takes that moment as the film’s ultimate mission: to explore identity. “This is a classic case of an ordinary person plunged into extraordinary circumstances. “I want people to be inspired and uplifted by the story …”

“We tried to boil it down because we never really wanted to make it a campaigning film. We were interested in exploring the nature of identity and what makes us who we are - and if you take all those things away from somebody how do they come to terms with it? It was also quite a challenging scripting process because of course the real events happened over a very long period of time, so we had to find a way of shaping it into a coherent, singular narrative. It was one of those stories that you could go spinning off into all sorts of different areas - you could look at the involvement of the Catholic Church, or you could look at the role of the state in caring for so-called less privileged people. We had to home in on our story.”

Loach first met Margaret Humphreys in 2002. “I’d read her book and there’d been one or two small bits in the newspapers in Britain, but not much,” says Loach. “Margaret’s got a small office above a café in Nottingham so I went up to see her. At the time I was thinking about a documentary but I wasn’t sure how I could approach it. We just sat there and chatted and at first I think she gave me fairly short thrift to be honest, but we warmed to each other. I stayed in touch with her over the next couple of years and got to know her better. And it was during that process I started to think that her own journey through the whole thing was a way of tackling it as a drama because she started to just speak more about her own experiences.

"heavy emotional elements"

Making the film with its heavy emotional elements “was a full on journey for us all,” says Loach. “But we also had fun, thanks to people like David Wenham who is a very funny man. But Emily is also wicked and mischievous … I sometimes felt like a headmaster!”

Emily Watson had elected not to meet Margaret Humphreys, but Loach says he had three Margarets: “there was the real Margaret, the Emily Watson Margaret and the Margaret in the script.”

But he recalls one special moment when they all came together: “Emily was trying on various outfits and kept popping out of her trailer to show me. On about the third outfit as she stepped out, it was as if you’d picked an image from my head; it was amazing. Exactly as I saw her…”

Published June 9, 2011

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