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Oranges and Sunshine: movie review

The little-known story of British children shipped to Australia is powerful, though occasionally the film gets too close to the mood of a TV movie.

Hugo Weaving (l.) and Emily Watson star in the film ''Oranges and Sunshine,' based on a story from England and Australia's past.

Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

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Like many, I suspect, in the moviegoing audience, I was unaware until I saw "Oranges and Sunshine" of a great government-sanctioned social scandal. Thousands of children in the mid-20th century were unjustly deported from Britain to Australia.

The children – almost all of whom were white, because the Australians were interested in "good white stock" – were separated from their parents, who were usually poor and deemed temporarily unfit to care for them. Kids as young as 4 were then told their parents had died. The parents, in turn, were informed, wrongly, that their children had been placed in foster homes and adopted by "better" families. In fact, they were shipped to Australia, where they were told they would be able to ride horses to school and romp in the land of "oranges and sunshine."

The reality was far different. Many were put to work as illegal laborers in church-sponsored institutions, the most notorious being the remote Roman Catholic orphanage in Bindoon, where physical and sexual abuse by the elders was reportedly rampant.

Aside from the Australian TV drama "The Leaving of Liverpool," there has never before been a mainstream movie about this outrage. "Oranges and Sunshine" is based on the 1996 nonfiction book "Empty Cradles," by Margaret Humphreys, a Nottingham-based English social worker who has done more than anybody else to uncover this story and reunite the "forgotten children" with their parents – those who are still alive. Emily Watson, an actress of surpassing skill, plays Margaret, and the film, set mostly in the 1980s, is told entirely from her point of view.

A lesser actress would have made an immediate play for our sympathies, but Watson, best known for her performance in "Breaking the Waves," brings out the steeliness in Margaret's social activism. Dressed primly even in the sultry Australian sunshine, Margaret is armored by decorum. Watson makes you feel the great emotional reserves beneath the armor.

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