Year Released: 2010
Written by: Rona Munro, based on Empty Cradles, a nonfictional book by Margaret Humphreys
Directed by: Jim Loach
My Rating: 4/5 Stars
Why I Watched This: I am a sucker for social realism and films about social issues, because that's just the kind of masochistic person I am. This movie was adapted to screen by Rona Munro, who also wrote Ladybird, Ladybird. And most importantly, it's Emily Watson.
I am not much of a crier, but I cried my freaking eyes out during this movie. There should be a warning label on this movie -- Caution: Not Suitable for PMSing Moms. 'Nuff said.
Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) is a dedicated social worker, working with foster care and adoption issues. With a warm, compassionate heart and gentle demeanor paired with a strong backbone, she is well suited to the role, but it takes its toll on her.
A woman approaches her with a strange story. As a four-year-old child, she'd been loaded on a ship, with hundreds of other "orphans," and sent to a children's home in Australia. Confused and disconnected from her roots, the woman is seeking her birth mother.
|Recognize him? That's the elf king.|
Margaret meets someone else with a similar story. This leads her down a rabbit trail, uncovering the truth about British foster children deported to Australia, in the 1940s and 1950s, with the blessing of the British and Australian governments. The story slowly unfolds. Told, often falsely, that their parents were dead and lured with cheerful promises, the children were taken to a life of indentured servitude, neglect, and abuse. Much of this happened at the hands of a "Christian Brotherhood" of priests. To top it off, the "good brothers" instilled the message that, when the children came of age, they owed them for their care and education.
Margaret connects with these displaced kids, now in middle age, deeply wounded, and eager to discover their roots and meet their birth mothers. Her affection for them, and her commitment to her mission, continues to deepen, pulling her away from her devoted husband (Richard Dillane) and two young children. It also causes her to suffer post-traumatic stress. She struggles to set boundaries and find some sort of balance.
|Oy! It's Faramir!|
In many ways, it's similar to other films we've seen in which a dedicated ordinary hero is drawn more deeply into a cause and we see the toll it takes on her psychological health and her family. However, the story is compelling enough, and the characters sufficiently multilayered and interesting, to elevate this from a simple, formulaic "issues" movie. Furthermore, this movie showcases wonderful performances. Emily Watson is magnificent as always. The complexity of this role isn't quite on a par with Hilary in Hilary and Jackie or Bess in Breaking the Waves. But she is terrific.
The actors portraying the victims of deportation and horrific mistreatment -- including Hugo Weaving, David Wenham, and others -- were also phenomenal. Margaret's interviews with these men, struggling to overcome their suffering and piece together a sense of identity, were among the most poignant parts of the film. I was also very moved by Lorraine Ashbourne as an aging mother who'd been robbed of her young daughter.
I highly recommend this movie, though if you're like me, you'll need to invest in tissues. The performances alone make it worthwhile, and it is a well-crafted, beautifully shot, compassionate film. And the overall tone isn't dark. I think, above all, it tells one of the most powerful kinds of stories: a journey of healing.
"I don't like the idea of you walking around with a monster like that in your head."
"Everybody thinks there's going to be this big, cathartic moment, when all the wrongs are righted and all the wounds are healed. But it's not going to happen. I can't give you back what you've lost."
"You feel for us because we can't."