Curled up, almost hiding, on an enormous sofa in a London hotel, Emily Watson is relaxed and dressed down: no make-up; no jewellery; a navy hoodie zipped up casually over a pink silk blouse. Elegant and softly spoken, she shows no sign of starriness or self-importance. In fact, she is disarmingly self-effacing and likeable.
Her pale, unadorned face is lit by huge blue eyes which become animated as soon as she talks about her family (she has two young children with actor/writer husband Jack Waters) and her latest film, Oranges and Sunshine. Shot in the UK and Australia, it took her away from her family for months, but has been, she reflects, one of her most challenging and rewarding projects to date.
Based on a true story, Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, a former social worker from Nottingham who, in 1986, uncovered the organised deportation of more than 100,000 children in care. They were deported by the British government to Commonwealth countries including Australia until as recently as the 1960s, often without their parents being told.
Oranges and Sunshine throws a light on this little known episode of social history, anchoring it firmly on Humphreys’ story, told in her 1994 book, Empty Cradles. Her personal journey steers the film from Nottingham – where she worked for Nottinghamshire Council as a child protection officer and ran a post-adoption support group – to Australia, via Whitehall. Humphreys has now spent more than 20 years holding authorities to account.
Watson agreed to star in the low-budget indie production “within five minutes of reading the script” and it is clear she has a deep interest in the subject. “I was fascinated by Margaret,” she says. “I know how a challenging character’s emotional world can rub off on you, but it’s all make-up and hair dye for me.
“Margaret was taking on real-life traumas. She uncovered a miscarriage of justice and just started helping people, thousands of them. I think that is extraordinary. Her employer also funded part of her work and allowed her time to complete it. I bet social workers will say that never happens now.”
Throughout her 15-year film career, Watson, 44, has always been drawn to unusual films and complex characters. Take her portrayal of a repressed, socially naive young woman in the 1996 film Breaking the Waves, or of troubled cellist Jacqueline Du Pre in the 1998 film Hilary and Jackie, both of which earned her Oscar nominations – but Oranges, as she fondly calls it, was a particularly “intense” experience.
“At its centre is the relationship between a child and its mother; a relationship these people lost and were desperately trying to find,” says Watson. “As a mother, it felt very real, very visceral. And there’s always pressure when you’re playing a living person.”
‘I felt I knew her’
Although this pressure meant the pair never met before filming – “I didn’t want to be complicated by Margaret’s mannerisms or the sort of person I thought she was. I just wanted to tell her story” – they have since, which Watson admits was “really strange”. “I felt I knew her,” she says, breaking into a warm smile. How has Humphreys received the film? “She was understandably nervous, but I think she’s very happy now. She collaborated with the script and was smart and brave to give them the personal, difficult stuff – such as the impact of her work on her family.”
Watson listens intently when asked questions, pausing often to consider and re-consider her answers – but her easy manner, infectious laugh and fondness for swearing – “I used to hate watching myself on screen but now I think, f*** it, I’ve got two children, I don’t care!” – prevent her seeming over earnest.
All are qualities that convinced first-time director Jim Loach that she was the perfect actress to play Humphreys, and a social worker. “Emily has the right mix of humility and strength, plus compassion without sentimentality or over seriousness,” he says. “And she’s a lot of fun, which is important when you’re filming in difficult conditions, with emotionally demanding material.”
Loach is the son of veteran filmmaker Ken Loach, famous for his treatment of social issues on screen, including in 1966 the seminal documentary on homelessness, Cathy Come Home. “I read Margaret’s book and knew I wanted to make a film about her,” said Loach. “I was gobsmacked by what she achieved and what she went through. She became a bit of a heroic figure to me.”
When diva Mariah Carey played a social worker in the 2009 film Precious, she shocked fans by replacing her glamorous apparel with an all-together more dowdy look. For Humphreys, Watson emphatically did not want to go down the clichéd view of social workers in baggy jumpers and cardigans. “We decided Margaret would be professional and sharp,” she says. “So there she is in 45deg heat in the middle of the Outback in a suit! It wasn’t easy. But I’m sure if I’d had a different designer frock in every scene, social workers would be up in arms.”
She says making the film gave her a greater insight into the world of social workers. “Social workers aren’t always viewed as saviours, which in a lot of cases they absolutely should be,” she says. “Social work does need a better media profile and I’d like to think this film can be a part of that.”
● Oranges and Sunshine opens in the UK on 1 April
Policy lasted 99 years
Britain’s child migration schemes, established in 1869, saw up to 150,000 children in care moved to Commonwealth countries. The last party arrived in Australia in 1968. The schemes were intended to reduce the costs of caring for children and address labour shortages abroad.
Margaret Humphreys established the Child Migrants Trust in 1987. Last year, then prime minister Gordon Brown apologised to all those affected by the policy. This year, Humphreys was appointed a CBE.
Readers’ verdict on Oranges and Sunshine
Last month Community Care offered readers the chance to see an exclusive preview of Oranges and Sunshine. Here’s what they thought:
Sandra Jacobs-Walls, social care inspector: “Well scripted, well shot and not as painfully sentimental as I anticipated.”
Geraldine Brewer, senior residential child care officer: “So moving.”
Lindsay Jackson, student: “A beautiful and interesting film about an important period.”
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