Movies based on inspirational David-versus-Goliath true stories can sometimes seem pretty formulaic. You know exactly where the emotional beats will come, when the big impassioned speech will happen, and precisely how you're supposed to feel every single second. So tip your hat to "Oranges and Sunshine," which stars Emily Watson as a 1980s social worker who fought to bring to light the secret deportation of thousands of U.K. children to Australia. There's very little of the standard uplift in director Jim Loach's film but, unfortunately, there also isn't enough drama, either. You may find yourself longing for a little calculated uplift.
"Oranges and Sunshine" introduces us to Margaret Humphreys (Watson), a happily married mother who uncovered the truth about these secret deportations. From the 1940s until the '60s, children were carted off to Australia, informed that their parents were dead, and forced to live in children's homes that could be incredibly abusive. Humphreys began a campaign to expose the truth and to wring an apology out of the British government.
From that setup, you can imagine how it'll all play out, even if you know nothing of the actual story. But Loach, son of revered English director Ken Loach, resists going for an inspirational tone with "Oranges and Sunshine." (The title itself -- a reference to the promise made to British children about what their lives would be like in Australia -- gives you a hint of the film's dour mood.) And in that spirit, Watson gives a natural, unfussy performance as Humphreys, presenting us with a rather unremarkable woman who took on the mantle of greatness when she decided that she couldn't stand by and let this injustice go undocumented.
But even in the telling of this woman's quest is "Oranges and Sunshine" determinedly low-key. Spending most of her time in Australia tracking down deportees to hear their stories and try to reconnect them with their families, Humphreys doesn't have any profound revelations or ingenious ploys to help her cause. Mostly, it was a lot of long hours and dedication that helped bring the story to the world's attention and reunite displaced families. And there's something heroic in "Oranges and Sunshine's" attitude toward her grunt work. The movie very quietly makes the point that sometimes it doesn't take a charismatic leader or a dynamic figure to change the world: Sometimes you just need one tough old bird who won't take no for an answer.
Unfortunately, that stripped-down approach has its limits. For one thing, "Oranges and Sunshine" can't help but feel a bit like a dry procedural, one that's educational but not one that's particularly compelling or insightful. We get to know a few of the people she tries to help -- most memorably Hugo Weaving as a middle-aged man who seems to have been permanently broken because of his traumatic childhood experience -- but Loach's polite distance from his characters' pain keeps it from fully resonating. Put another way, rather than the predictable emotional roller coaster of most true-life tales, in "Oranges and Sunshine" we get one very straight road. I very much respected what Loach and Watson attempted to do with their film, but I really wanted to love it.