Opening Friday in New York and Los Angeles is “Oranges and Sunshine,” starring Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, and David Wenham. The film is based on Margaret Humphreys’s book “Empty Cradles” and depicts the true story of British social worker Humphreys, who uncovers a governmental policy of children being deported from England to Australia for years. These children of the state were told that their parents were dead, which was often untrue. Sadly these children ended up in orphanages and were often abused and subject to hard labor.
Watson plays the social worker and whistleblower who works to reunite children with their families as well as obtain official apologies from the two governments. Watson sat down with reporters last week in Los Angeles to discuss the film and real-life hero, Margaret Humphreys.
What drew you to the part of Margaret Humphreys? Did you know about her or her work beforehand?
I was shocked, really shocked. I read the script. This is a true story? Surely not. I had absolutely no idea. And I consider myself to be pretty well educated. No idea at all. It’s within living memory … really shocked and fascinated and compelled to get involved really.
At what stage were you involved?
[When the] fully formed script landed on my desk. They’d been developing it with Margaret. She took a lot of persuading to say “OK, you can make this into a film.” Because rightfully, she’s very wary of movies and putting this kind of subject matter which is very, very sensitive about real people, [with] very troubled lives on film. But I think she found the right guy [in director Jim Loach].
Did you spend time with Margaret Humphreys before filming?
I decided not to meet her. I had the opportunity to meet her, she was around and involved with it … and Jim Loach said do you want to meet her, and I said “no I don’t think I do.” Because [she’s very] English. And I’d seen her on film and I could see she had a very particular English way of being and I didn’t want to get hung up on doing a physical impersonation of her …
But there was this amazing footage of her that’s in one of the documentaries telling somebody that she’s found her mother. And it’s so beautiful the way she does it, which was really key for me to getting into her … And I thought that is a real social worker. And social workers get such a bad rap in stories, in film, and in media, generally, for being interfering and destroying families. I think they’re the real unsung heroes of society.
The scene where you tell Hugo Weaving’s character the news about his mother is very powerful.
My mom passed away when we were making the film, and I had to go home to England … I came straight from the funeral back to Australia and that was the first scene we shot. And Hugo was so amazing. I was barely able to speak and he just did it all. He was so emotional and so beautiful, and we didn’t really say anything but he just did it. I’ll never forget it, it was so beautiful. He’s an incredible actor and a lovely man, and I feel quite annoyed that he lives on the other side of the world.
What was it like to hear the apologies from both the Australian and English governments while in the middle of production?
It was really amazing. I think really it was a coincidence that we just happened to be filming at that time. It was Margaret’s doing. She didn’t shut up for 20, 25 years, she just kept going and going and going and going until somebody turned around and said, “We were responsible.” Because if you think about it, it’s the most astonishing abuse of human rights.
If these were adults who were forcibly deported to another country and then abused, we would know about it … But nobody wants to hear, nobody wants to listen, all the doors slammed in [Margaret’s] face — the church, the charities, the government, everybody. And she didn’t let up. She kept going. But there has never been a judicial inquiry. There has never been any official explanation as to why this was policy.
When did you finally meet Margaret Humphreys?
At the cast and crew screening — with a gin and tonic. That was quite a scary moment but she was very lovely about the film. We have her blessing I believe …
It’s very interesting to spend time with her because she so sees the film from a political and social point of view … They did the London opening … and there was an invited audience. We did a Q&A afterwards — there were QCs [Queen’s Counsel], human rights lawyers and activists, and child protection officers. The Q&A afterwards was the most incredible debate about child protection issues, and nobody asked me about how I learned my lines [laughs].
I mean this was really impressive and powerful and amazing, and [Margaret] said some fantastic things … I remember her saying, “When you make a decision about a child’s life, you have to remember it’s forever. And that’s an incredibly powerful thing to do to make a decision about a child’s life, and we have to guard those decisions carefully.”
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