Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) is an already busy social worker with a huge case load to deal with so when a middle aged woman who has travelled to Britain from Australia contacts her in search of her birth parents it is another case which she doesn't really have the time to deal with. But something intrigues Margaret and her husband Merv (Richard Dillane) about what the woman tells them as she says she was just one of thousands of children who years earlier had been removed from their families and shipped abroad under the promise of a better life where the sun would always shine and they could pick oranges for breakfast. As Margaret starts to look into what the woman said she is shocked and disgusted to learn of the organised deportation by the British Government of children who were orphans, from low paid families or single mums back as late as the 60s, sent to live abroad with a promise of a better life only to end up as child labour. Having headed to Australia to meet some of these now adults she tries to help them find their families back in the UK but finds her investigations frequently blocked by those who would prefer to keep the skeleton in the closet.
Every country has skeletons in the closets, things they did which they would rather forget and for Britain one of those skeletons was the horrifying truth that there was the organised deportation of children from various "lesser" backgrounds to other countries, fuelled by promises but facing a very different reality. That practice of removing children from families be it single mums or those on low pay is enough to make you feel angry before you even learn of what faced these children when they reached their destinations, many forced to labour rather than being adopted. Whilst the British Government did apologise for these sins of the past it still is upsetting to know that this once went on.
Now what we get in "Oranges and Sunshine" is a quiet little drama which focuses on social worker Margaret trying to get to the bottom of what happened and unite those who were removed from their families. I say quiet because the subject matter is emotive yet the emotion of it is thankfully underplayed and kept in check, stopping it from feeling just an angry movie which aims to manipulate the audience's emotions. But it still manages to make the audience feel anger especially as we encounter the wall of silence which Margaret came up against as she tries to uncover the records of these forced deportations but is blocked from those who want to keep this unsavoury episode in Britain's history hidden in the closet.
Now "Oranges and Sunshine" does not need a great deal more explanation than that as we watch Margaret uncover the truth and try to unite families torn apart. But I do have to mention Emily Watson who in every movie she appears in manages to get the right tone and she does so once again here as the busy but kind social worker Margaret. It is a perfectly restrained performance as we understand her shock and her anger of what she discovers with out the need to force it. But she also gets the right level of sympathy making her kind but not weak, just believably understanding.
What this all boils down to is that "Oranges and Sunshine" is captivating thanks to the emotive power of the true story but also through the effective, non sensational way director Jim Loach handles it. It also features another pitch perfect performance from Emily Watson who leads us through the drama almost as a vehicle for telling the story rather than being the star of it.