Oranges and Sunshine
Author: Rona Munro
Writer’s Potential: 6
Logline:In the mid-1980s, a British social worker uncovers a decades-old scheme to ship foster-care children to Australia, where they are abused and forced into slave labor.
Synopsis:Nottingham, 1986. MARGARET HUMPHREYS (early 40s, well dressed) goes to a dingy apartment to convince a young woman named SUSIE to give up her child. Susie wants to believe things will get better, that she doesn’t have to give up the child. Margaret delicately convinces Susie otherwise. Later, Margaret moderates a support group for children raised in the foster-care system. As the group breaks up for the evening, middle-aged CHARLOTTE approaches Margaret. She’s searching for her past. Margaret urges Charlotte to speak with someone about counseling. This answer frustrates Charlotte, who announces that all she remembers about her childhood was people sticking her on a boat for Australia at age four, after her mother died. Margaret is flummoxed, suggesting that perhaps Charlotte is remembering wrong. This notion offends Charlotte, and she rushes off in an angry huff. That night, Margaret discusses the incident with her husband, MERV. Merv, also a social worker, tries to calm her nerves, but Margaret still feels guilty.
In the middle of the night, Margaret’s son, BEN (8), wakes screaming from a nightmare. Margaret comforts her son. A week later, at Margaret’s support group, a woman named NICKY shares some good news. A man wrote her a letter, claiming to be her brother, which flooded Nicky with long-forgotten memories of him. Someone asks where he was, and Nicky surprises them all by saying he was shipped off to Australia as a child — not adopted by one, just sent on a big ship full of kids ranging in age from five to 15. Margaret is shocked and begins asking questions. After doing some investigative work, Margaret discovers that children were sent to Australia, but she can’t find any official documentation. Taking another approach, she seeks Charlotte’s birth certificate, then searches for the death certificate of the woman registered as her mother. Finding nothing, Margaret looks through marriage certificates to see if the name changed. She finds a marriage certificate for Charlotte’s mother — years after her alleged death. Margaret finds the woman’s current information and tracks her to her place of employment, a pub. Margaret approaches the bartender, VERA, and finds out that she is indeed Charlotte’s mother. Vera says she tried visiting Charlotte but was told she couldn’t. She had no idea they sent her to Australia, and she wants to know why.
Margaret discusses this with Merv. He suggests the only place to find the answers is Australia. They consider the financial difficulty and arranging vacation time. In the middle of the night, Margaret waits for morning, Melbourne-time, and calls Charlotte to tell her she’s found Vera. Charlotte hops a plane immediately, and Margaret takes her to Vera. They bond quickly. Some time later, Margaret travels to Melbourne. There, she meets Nicky and her brother, JACK. Jack takes them to where he was forced to stay, an old farm school in the middle of nowhere, where they stuffed 20 boys into a bunkhouse and refused to let the children attend school unless they finished their grueling farm work. Appalled, Margaret asks how many were British. Jack thinks they all were. At a school reunion, Margaret gives a speech urging British orphans to come to her so she can learn about their histories and help them reconnect with any living relatives. Plenty of alumni ask for her help. Another day, an archivist gives Margaret packages of photos showing the children outside the ships. He says there are no written records, but the fact that everyone was photographed suggests it was an organized scheme. Margaret wonders why nobody had heard about this before. The archivist supposes nobody took an interest. Jack describes an angry, empty feeling, and Margaret offers to help him find his mother, if she’s still alive. Jack’s reluctant, but Margaret wants to help.
Upon returning to England, Merv shows Margaret the fruits of his labor: after searching government records to no avail, he found an ad for the farm school where Jack grew up. From there, he found ads from dozens of other charities, churches, and companies that sent children to various British colonies. They ran from the 1800s to 1970, with the biggest influx of kids going to Australia from the 1950s-1960s. Merv says the number of kids is so high, it could only have happened with government intervention. Margaret suggests that if the government was involved, records must exist. Margaret meets with City Council members to discuss what she’s up to. Margaret’s initially defensive, but JOAN offers to seek funding that will allow Margaret to work on this full time. She also tells the story to a reporter friend.
Margaret is flooded with letters, an overwhelming response. She registers for a hotel in Australia when a man named GRAHAM approaches, accusing her of meddling and asking if she’s ever heard of Bindoon. Margaret doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Graham threatens to kill Margaret if she upsets any of the boys. Margaret gives a man named BOB his birth certificate, along with a birthday card for his upcoming birthday. Bob is stunned — he’s never had a birthday. Later, a man named LEN barges in with DAN, who has an appointment. Len is brash and obnoxious, but Margaret’s toughness wins him over. After Margaret does a radio interview, a receptionist at the station accuses her of lying. Margaret visits a man named WALTER at a mental ward. He heard her radio interview and broke down. He was a victim of this program, and it destroyed his life. He left at age three and was given away to a couple during Christmas. They attempted to sexually abuse him, but he made too much noise, so they took him back to the orphanage. After talking with Walter, Margaret returns to her hotel room and cries.
Margaret returns home for Christmas and has a panic attack, tearing down all the decorations because they shouldn’t celebrate when all these children suffered. Merv talks some sense into her. Margaret takes Nicky and Jack — who’s now in England, living with Nicky — to a café in Leicester, where she introduces them to a woman who knew their mother. In Perth, Margaret visits a priest who threatens her. During a celebration thrown by all the people she’s helped, Margaret receives a phone call warning her to return to England and never come back. Len shows up to the party. Later, he takes her to the docks and gives her a guided tour of his childhood arrival in Australia. His story upsets her. Later, Margaret sets up in a hotel room to meet with people one-on-one. Jack’s the first person she meets with; although Margaret did track down his and Nicky’s mother, they’re too late. She died last year. Back in England, Margaret and Merv meet with the Department of Health, who deny any wrongdoing and accuse Margaret of bad intentions. After the meeting, a representative from one of the foster-care organizations approaches Margaret and informs her that these children’s parents were the scum of the earth, so despite a few minor problems, the children were better off in foster care. Margaret is appalled. Margaret meets Len in England, and they take a train to a small village, where he meets his mother for the first time.
In Australia, Margaret receives a phone call. Nothing on the line but heavy breathing. Later that night, while running down som leads, Margaret is assaulted by a mystery man who threatens to kill her. Margaret runs away and hides in some bushes behind the house. Although she hears a car drive away, Margaret can’t move. She stays there all night. The police agree to send cars around the street at night. Merv calls Jack and has him keep Margaret company. Jack sleeps outside, keeping guard. Margaret returns to England, and both she and Merv start to see the toll it’s taking on their kids. Margaret visits a doctor, who tells her she has post-traumatic stress disorder. He refers her for counseling and suggests she cut back her work load and traveling. Charlotte and Vera meet with Margaret, chattering excitedly about how wonderful life has become now that they’ve reconnected — and it’s all thanks to her.
Margaret returns to Perth and stays at Len’s house, for security. Len tells her some other foster-care victims brought news crews to Bindoon and suggest Margaret finally go there. Margaret refuses, and they get into an argument about it. Len concludes by telling Margaret to hink about it. Another day, Graham sneaks into the house, terrifying Margaret. Tearfully, he says he saw the Bindoon exposés on television. He apologizes, saying he didn’t understand, that the monks at Bindoon warped his mind. Margaret invites him in for a cup of tea. At dawn, Margaret and Len leave for Bindoon. It’s out in the middle of the bush, a huge and beautiful structure surrounded by vast stretches of nothing. As Len shows her around, Margaret flashes back to various people — among them, Graham and Len — describing the trauma and abuse they suffered at this place. Eventually, she collapses, unable to deal with the stress.
Len apologizes. It occurs to him that she’s having a harder time at Bindoon than he did. He realizes that all these victims have been numbed by the decades of abuse, but Margaret has come along and felt the pain for them. Although it’s overwhelming to Margaret, he thanks her for caring and trying to help them heal. The Australians have another party for Margaret; this time, Merv surprises her by showing up in Perth. After the party, Margaret goes back to work. Closing titles explain that, although 130,000 children were victims of the child migration schemes, 1500 have been reunited with their families. Margaret received the Order of Australia in 1993. The British and Australian governments refuse to investigate or take responsibility for the migration schemes.
Comments:Oranges and Sunshine chronicles a harrowing problem in the U.K., but it does so in a very bland, by-the-numbers way. While the story of Margaret Humphreys deserves to be told, this script is simply repetitive and not terribly dramatic. As a result, the script merits a pass.
The first act does an effective job of setting everything up, but the second act does little more than alternate between scenes of Margaret listening to others describe their abuse and Margaret reuniting these people with their families. It’s heartwarming the first couple of times, but it quickly becomes redundant and tedious, lacking any real narrative momentum. The third act mostly revolves around Margaret in Bindoon, which only amps up the already repetitive scenes of victims describing their abuse.
The writer does a nice job with Margaret as a character, building a nice arc as the emotional toll of this job begins to wreak havoc on her psyche. Some of the other characters, notably Merv and Len, have their share of nice moments. Each migrant victim has at least one juicy monologue to recite, but few of them appear in more than one scene. The villains come in the form of apathetic government officials and menacing Australians, and aside from the scene in which Margaret is physically attacked, the “villains” are distant and ineffective. They don’t create enough conflict, which contributes to the storyline’s lack of momentum.
Because the script puts most of its emphasis on Margaret’s internal struggle and the monologues from the abuse victims, this could be turned into something interesting if the right actors are cast in their roles. Nonetheless, it has the feel of a made-for-cable docudrama rather than a theatrical release.