Like his father, the director Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley), Jim Loach has chosen to make socially conscious films that expose Britain’s shameful acts. Unlike his father, whose work is steeped in breezy verisimilitude, Loach the Younger is a maker of insistent emotional appeals, out more for your tears than your education. A thrillingly realistic film could conceivably be made out of Oranges and Sunshine, which concerns the “Home Children” scandal, wherein over the course of 150 years some 130,000 poor or orphaned children were forcibly migrated from England to Australia. Instead it’s one of those fussy docudramas that are about as lousy as the topic that inspired is worth revealing.
Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, a Nottingham social worker made hip to the aforementioned scheme by some of its victims, when they were middle aged. Soon, she’s shuttling back and forth between England and Oz, struggling to pair up older Aussies with their possibly deceased parents. All the while she’s ruffling feathers by hitting up the press and carrying on multiple Erin Brockovich-style scenes where a naysayer confronts her, she fires off a prickly tell-off and the scene ends before they have the chance to retort.
But Watson is no Julia Roberts, nor wants to be. She’s reserved even at her feistiest—perhaps too calm than this genre requires. Films like this traditionally run on people like Ashley Judd, who flares her nostrils as she assassinates her opponent with a fiery quotable. That might mean that Oranges and Sunshine may never sufficiently placate fans of such work, but those allergic to them can find relief in some epic underplaying. That doesn’t extend to Jim Loach’s direction, which is the style that features constant sad piano music to underline what need not be underlined. But he was at least wise enough to demand even better low-key work from Hugo Weaving and David Wenham, as victims who are, respectively, profoundly bereaved and amusingly unflappable. By doing precious little, they break your heart. Others should have taken note.