Australian politics, society & culture

Shipped Down Under

Jim Loach’s 'Oranges and Sunshine' and Mark Lewis’ 'Cane Toads: The Conquest'

MJ Hyland

Medium length read1400 words
 

In the late 1980s, Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys investigated the postwar deportation of care-home children from England to Australia. Like convicts, thousands of false foundlings were herded by ship and hundreds of boys were held in Bindoon Boys’ Town, in outback Western Australia. Told that their mothers were dead, or didn’t want them, they led the lives of small slaves. The boys slept in cramped quarters, which were either too hot or too cold, and they were fed measly rations. None had any idea why they were made to scrub the floors for the Christian Brothers, who sometimes raped them.

In his debut feature, Oranges and Sunshine (released 9 June), Jim Loach, son of Ken, tells Humphreys’ story. When Loach, formerly a BBC researcher and director for television, first talked to Humphreys about making a film based on her autobiographical book, Empty Cradles (1994), she was reluctant. But Loach got to know her and visited her often – until, finally, she allowed the film to be made.

Oranges and Sunshine is artlessly faithful to Humphreys’ life story. It has the coy and literal tone of dramatic reconstruction, like a daytime-television biopic. Humphreys’ goodness, manifest in her self-sacrificing mission, is the point of the film, as is her spectacular ability to uncover decades-old secrets. However, though her story is based in truth, it is filmed in such a way as to seem implausible, too reliant on coincidence.

 The script, written by Rona Munro (Ladybird Ladybird), is likewise too respectful of Humphreys’ true story. It’s also coy, and clichéd. When Humphreys (Emily Watson) meets one of the deported children, now a grown man by the name of Len (David Wenham), Humphreys says, “I’m sure there’s a hurt little boy inside there, Mr Connolly, and we just have to find him.” When Humphreys meets Jack (Hugo Weaving) she asks, “What’s wrong, Jack?” and he replies, “I saved up all my antidepressants and …”

Many sentences end in ashamed ellipses. One of the Bindoon Boys says: “They took me into the bathroom and they …” and “he tied me to a tree and then he …” Loach and Munro would protest, of course – “But that’s what those people really said …” And that’s the problem. Yet, in spite of too much timid dialogue, the performances are mostly strong, especially Weaving’s; he does his best when required to sob after his character learns it’s “too late” to meet his mother.

The wretched wrongdoers – the bad officials, the unhelpful and complicit government agents – are so crudely drawn that they might as well not appear. When the Christian Brothers are finally seen – ten of them, all in creepy robes, eating breakfast in dumb Catholic silence at their long table in the Bindoon Gothic mansion – they have no dialogue. Their depiction is a blunt mise en scène of menace: ten horror-film ghouls; disembodied and silent symbols of generalised guilt.

If only Loach had been prepared (or free) to exploit or rearrange the truth for filmic traction and drama, Oranges and Sunshine would be something more than merely laudable. Loach might have told the story of one of the boys from Boys’ Town, taking us to the true centre of gravity. He could have done this, giving himself permission to fictionalise, and still shown Humphreys’ great humanity. But, as soon as Loach decided to take Humphreys’ point of view, he was artistically and sentimentally hamstrung.

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Cane Toads: The Conquest (released 9 June) is the first digital 3D feature film made in Australia. It’s also the first documentary told from the point of view of a plague of frogs. Just in case we didn’t already know, scientist Nigel Turvey, who appears near the start of Mark Lewis’ wonderful film, tells us all about the devastating problem of cane beetles in the 1930s: how they destroyed crops and how it came to be that “Queensland growers were in dire straits”. The Australian government thought it had found a solution in Puerto Rico when, in 1932, the cane toad began to show some skill at eradicating beetles. In 1935, the Queensland government decided to stuff two suitcases full of Hawaiian toads and ship them to Australia.

The cane toad was a failure, of course, and Lewis has gathered a great cast of strange and unselfconscious people to tell us what the toads are all about. Tip Byrne, a cane farmer, says, “The toad didn’t have the beetles by the balls … they had us by the balls.” Beetles congregate high on the sugar cane and, as Professor Madsen tells us, “cane toads are not very good in climbing … but they have this funny smile on them and they can look quite cute.”

The zoologist Dr Glen Ingram, with his plump face and fuzzy hair and beard, gives an impersonation of the mating call of the male toad. Ingram’s top lip wobbles and out comes a good gurgle. Ingram also describes what the toad does when he’s finished gurgling: “He rams his thumbs in behind her front legs and into her rib cage …”

A rampant procreator, the toad is also getting bigger, longer in leg and faster. Lewis doesn’t fully explain why toads are regarded as an environmental blight, and seems to presume foreknowledge. Nor does the film pay much heed to science, but there are plenty of experts who are called on to talk, for example, about the attempt to place radio transmitters on toads and the use of listening devices to track the high-speed migration of the poisonous beasts. According to one expert, Professor Shine: “It’s the foot-race across tropical Australia … the best athletes are breeding with each other. We call it the Olympic Village Effect.”

Darwin Lord Mayor Graeme Sawyer says, “It’s like an enemy on the march … people should try and kill as many of them as they can, by any means that they can.” So what methods might these be? Lewis’ documentary covers flame throwers, Dettol, lawnmowers, cricket bats, boiling water, hydrated lime in water, as well as the technique of stuffing toads in a box, sticking in the exhaust from the car and gassing them to death. Taxi driver Pete Smith likes to “feel the squelch of them” when he runs them over – “You can hear the noise even with the air-conditioner on.”

Cane Toads tells a few beast-versus-beast stories, too. There’s Wallace, the little white dog who was poisoned by a toad and now lives a brain-damaged but happy life. And there’s the dog who licks the poisonous juice from toads’ bellies like a junkie: just enough to get high but not enough to die.

Lewis’ first film about toads, the 45 minute Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (1988), has a cult following, but this one is a bigger accomplishment, winning rave reviews at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Lewis’ instinct for storytelling – his control of pace and tension – is first rate, as is the film’s cinematography. Cane Toads: The Conquest is charming, clever and sometimes hilarious. But there’s a moral tension in film-making of this kind: while Lewis no doubt has affection for the back-of-beyond weirdos in his film – the people who find ingenious ways to destroy (or defend) these sometimes “cute when they smile” invaders – these same people will, of course, be seen by many as laughable crackpots. I loved them. And I especially loved Cathy Singleton, who worries that by the time the toads get to Perth “they’ll be the size of bloody camels.”

MJ Hyland

MJ Hyland is an award-winning novelist. Her books include How Light Gets In, the 2006 Man Booker-shortlisted Carry Me Down and This is How.
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