Director: Jim Loach
Starring: Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham
Runtime: 105 min
Director Ken Loach’s son Jim Loach examines the “lost children of the Empire” in this film based on the autobiographical novel Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphreys. Set in 1986 Nottingham, this bleak and honest retelling is the true story of how a social worker brought to light the mass enforced migration of thousands of children in the welfare system from the UK to Australia and other Commonwealth countries, all occurring under the government’s child migration scheme from 1869 until as recently as 1970.
One night, social worker Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) is leaving one of her weekly support meetings for adults who have been in foster care as children. She is approached by a woman who thrusts a thin file into her hand and begs Margaret to help her find out who she is, claiming to have been brought to Australia as a child and knowing only that her mother lived in Nottingham. Intrigued yet incredulous about such a deportation taking place without the mother’s consent, Margaret nonetheless follows the case and unearths a whole trail of separated families, hidden paperwork and individuals who have felt rootless their whole lives.
With the help of two such “migrant children” of the ’40s – the beaten, introverted Jack (Hugo Weaving) and the self-made but bitter Len (David Wenham) – Margaret slowly uncovers the stories of sexual abuse and child labour which went on at the Roman Catholic institutions in Western Australia where these children were housed. As the scope of her discoveries expand, so do the ranks her enemies, and her efforts to secure some sort of compensation for the families affected are met by bureaucratic stoicism. In the meantime, it is not only her name but also her psychological health which begins to suffer due to how emotionally invested she has become in these lost and lonely strangers.
Although the performances by the veteran leads are moving, earnest and real, Loach has relied too heavily on audience engagement and empathy with its subject matter. Although the social issue at hand is enough to keep one engaged throughout, the tone of the film is grim, austere and slow, instilling in the viewer a sense of expectation for a denouement that never comes. Arguably, no other alternative may have been possible for a story that needs to stay true to real events; yet it does undermine itself somewhat by requiring nothing more from the audience than a steadily maintained, righteous anger throughout. Although the restraint of Loach’s camera adds a very grim, ‘real-life’ edge to the film, this is sometimes not enough to drive home issues just as important as the self-evident atrocities of the deportation scheme: the dangers of collective amnesia, and the destructive burden of non-belonging.
An appropriate tone for a documentary, yet as a film with a cast of such potential, it is held back by its determination to assert and reassert the injustice of what is self-evidently unjust. True, there is a quiet, straightforward strength to its heavy reliance on its black-and-white, right-or-wrong perception of this social issue. However, one can’t help but think had they wanted solely the story at its most bare, reading the autobiography would have sufficed. A conversion to the visual medium hasn’t lent any force the story didn’t already have on its own account; nevertheless, an unflinching debut from a director whom we can probably expect more gritty, historically-grounded work from.