by director Jim Loach
I vividly recall the moment I knew I wanted to make the film that became Oranges and Sunshine: I was sitting, rather awkwardly, on the sofa in Margaret Humphrey's office, drinking tea and listening—spellbound—to a story she was telling me. It was about a man who had come back to England from Australia, to meet his mother for the first time in forty odd years. The man had been told that his mother was dead; the mother had been told that her son had been happily adopted in the UK. The truth was that his mother was alive and well, and that he had been deported to a children’s home in Australia at age eight. Everything he had been told about his family as he grew up had turned out to be wrong. Now, together again, mother and son were trying to rebuild their lives. Both had been lied to. But by whom, and why?
I think I spent about three hours with Margaret in that initial meeting. What she had to say was absolutely incredible. The British government had been secretly deporting children in care to Australia, and other parts of the former Empire. Children as young as four had been told their parents had died, put on boats, and sent to children’s homes on the other side of the world. Their parents, meanwhile, had been told that their children had been adopted into caring families in the UK. It seemed almost unbelievable to me. And then there was Margaret herself: this extraordinarily inspirational woman who had almost single-handedly uncovered the whole scandal, at huge personal cost both to her and her own family.
The fundamental idea for the film was born that day—it seemed to me not only the most incredible story to tell, but also one that helped to unlock one of the big themes: identity. What makes us who we are? How do we recover if those things are taken from us? These were the sorts of questions that were underneath the material for me when we were making the film. I was fortunate to find a like-minded actress to work with in Emily Watson. I’d wanted to work with her for years, and the character just sort of became her in my head. And then I was worried in case she didn’t want to do it. But we met up on a very snowy London day, and she just got it right from the off. For me, she has a very special mix of strength and frailty—a contradiction that is right at the heart of the character. So many people have said to me they just wanted to reach through the screen and give her a big hug! Ultimately, audiences have taken it as an incredibly uplifting story of a woman who just wouldn’t give up, wouldn’t walk away, despite everything that was being thrown at her. And I find that really heartening because that was the film we wanted to make—a film about survivors, about the indomitable human spirit.
At first Margaret was a bit skeptical about being the subject of a feature film: I found her the classic 'reluctant hero,' and of course she was concerned about what all the real former child migrants would make of it. We all went on this amazing journey together, and the result is Oranges and Sunshine.