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Hidden Gem DVD’s #2 and #3: “Oranges and Sunshine” and “A Separation”

August 21, 2012

Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson)

Two of my favorite movies of last year are now on DVD; the former came out several weeks ago, while the other one comes out today. Both of them are independent films, and from foreign countries (the former is a joint British/Australian production, while the latter is from Iran), and with rare exceptions, those are the types of movies these days that get lost in the shuffle. The former does have a couple of well-known stars in it, and was directed by the son of a well-known British director, while the latter won last year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and I hope that’s enough to get people to watch them. They might also, because of their subject matter, be considered “important” movies, but that implies the films are pedantic lectures, and neither of them are. They may be angry (in the former film) or sorrowful (in the latter), but they’re both alive and compelling to watch. The films are Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine and Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation.

In 1987, Margaret Humphreys (played by Emily Watson in the film), a British social worker who also ran a support group for adults adopted when they were children, stumbled upon what would later be known as the Home Children scandal. It began innocently enough, as they say, when an Australian woman approached her at one of the meetings of her support group, asking her to try and find her birth mother. Humphreys demurred at first, since she had a job and a family to take care of (her husband, Merve, is played by Richard Dillane), and also found the woman’s story unbelievable. However, she changed her mind, and discovered not only was this woman’s birth mother still alive, but had been told her daughter was adopted. Through record-checking in Britain (actually, Nottingham was where she lived) and through trips to Australia, she discovered the story.

As far back as the 19th century, lower-class and orphaned British children had been sent to other Commonwealth countries, particularly Australia and Canada, to work and live in what were called distribution camps, under the guise of giving them a better life. Without denying the fact to be a poor and/or orphaned child in Britain at that time could be horrific, and without denying the intentions may have been good (child reformer Annie MacPherson was behind the emigration, having been appalled at children working in sweatshops), what happened was an atrocity. Thousands of these children were told their mothers were dead (the mothers in turn were told the children were adopted and living in better homes), and were sent to these camps on the promise of a better life (the movie title comes from the promise made to children sent to Australia that they would pick oranges in the sunshine and drink the juice made from them). While some of them were put in good homes, many were forced into child labor at camps run by, among others, Christian Brothers, and were abused.

Loach’s film focuses on both Humphreys and her uncovering of the story (with backing from her bosses) and on two of the grown-up Home Children in particular, Jack (Hugo Weaving), who seems permanently troubled, even after he does find out the truth about his parents, and Len (David Wenham), who has become bitter at the experience, and questions whether Humphreys is even up to what she’s set out to do. It’s the characters, and the even-handed approach of Loach (son of Ken Loach, the resolutely left-wing British filmmaker), who lift this out of what could have been just an issue-of-the-week made-for-TV movie (Rona Munro, who wrote the elder Loach’s film Ladybird, Ladybird,wrote the screenplay here, adapting Humphreys’ book Empty Cradles).

Loach and Munro largely avoid hyping the material, letting it speak for itself, and while there are scenes of confrontation (when Humphreys is with the Christian Brothers near the end of the film), they mostly come out of the material (a couple of scenes where Humphreys gets threatened over the phone are the rare places where Loach becomes heavy-handed). And Watson doesn’t play Humphreys as a self-righteous crusader, but as a nervous but compassionate and determined woman trying to do the right thing. And she especially works well with Weaving and Wenham. Weaving, of course, is known for playing more forceful characters, be they villains (the Matrix movies), heroes (the Lord of the Rings movies), or somewhere in between (V for Vendetta). But he has played weak and vulnerable before, in the underrated Australian drug drama Little Fish, and he’s able to do so again here. Jack is constantly trying to keep up a brave front, but Weaving’s eyes always let us know how much he’s failing at it. As for Wenham (who also appeared in the Lord of the Rings movies), he’s able to make his bitterness subtle and cutting, and when he finally comes around to respecting Humphreys, he’s able to do that without sentimentalizing the character or material.

In some ways, this reminded me of two very good movies from last decade, Rabbit Proof Fence and The Magdalene Sisters. Like Loach’s film, both of them were indie films set in Commonwealth nations (Australia in the former, Ireland in the latter), both of them were about horrid injustices done in the name of “good” (for the former, forcibly removing half-caste Aboriginal children from their parents so they could be assimilated into white society, while for the latter, putting “fallen” women into homes run by the Catholic Church which were supposed to rehabilitate the women but often ended up abusing them), and in both cases, the injustices continued longer than you’d think (for the former, Australia didn’t stop the policy of removing half-caste children until 1970, while for the latter, the last Magdalene house didn’t close until 1996). Oranges and Sunshine doesn’t quite measure up to those films (to be sure, it’s also not as unsparing as those films either), but it’s a powerful, muckraking film nonetheless, and deserves a wider audience.

Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) argue in front of an unseen judge

While Loach’s film is about several broken families, Farhadi’s film concentrates on one. At the start of the film, Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi), a middle-class Iranian couple (she’s a doctor, while he works at a bank), appear before a judge (who remains unseen). Simin wanted to move their family, including their daughter Termeh (played by Farhadi’s daughter Sarina), out of the country, to give them a better life, but Nader doesn’t want to leave his father, who’s afflicted with Alzheimer’s. So, even though Simin does care for her husband (as well as her father-in-law), she wants a divorce. Nader doesn’t want one, and the judge won’t grant it (he says, “My finding is that your problem is a small problem”), but they do end up separating. Simin goes to live with her mother, Termeh stays with Nader, and he ends up hiring Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for his father.

Razieh comes with baggage of her own. She’s lower-class, deeply religious (unlike Nader) – to the point she calls an Islamic hotline to find out if it’s against Muslim doctrine to change Nader’s father when he soils himself – has an out-of-work husband (Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini)) and young daughter (Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini)), and is pregnant. But while Razieh doesn’t seem to be the most experienced caregiver at first, everything seems to be going fine until one day when two crucial events occur; Nader finds his father tied to the bed, and Razieh falls down the stairs of his apartment building, which causes her to miscarry. How and why did these events occur? Nader accuses Razieh of mistreating his father, and she angrily accuses Nader of pushing him down those stairs and causing her miscarriage.

The small miracle of Farhadi’s movie is while this could have easily descended to the level of a he-said, she-said drama, he avoids that trap entirely. Instead, this movie brings to mind Akira Kurosawa’s great film Rashomon, where the truth is ultimately unknowable. Farhadi sets up the film as a mystery, so we only learn information a few drips at a time, and the effect every time is to change how we view the characters and the situation. Nader, for example, is undeniably temperamental (though, to be sure, he has nothing on Hodjat), and because of religious and class differences, more than somewhat snobbish towards Razieh and her situation, but he also deeply cares for his daughter, and turns out to be a lot more complicated than he appears at first glance (so, for that matter, does Hodjat). And while the characters say an awful lot – actually, they yell an awful lot, but Farhadi never lets it become hectoring – the movie also fills in what they don’t say. At one point, Termeh reprovingly says to her mother (who has been drawn into this whole mess), “If you hadn’t left, Dad wouldn’t be in jail” – Nader is arrested on Razieh’s accusation of causing her miscarriage – and yet you could argue the movie is saying that if the family had left the country like Simin had wanted to in the first place, it wouldn’t be in this situation.

Farhadi has been, at least implicitly, endorsed, or at least tolerated, by the Iranian government – unlike, say, Jafar Panahi (This is Not a Film), who has been imprisoned by the government and barred from making films – but that doesn’t make A Separation a propaganda piece for, or even an indictment against, the government. As with the truth of what happened to Nader’s father and Razieh’s baby, we’re left to draw our own conclusions. Farhadi does show us the day-t0-day life of the country, and this applies not just to the main characters, but the people who end up getting involved in their disputes. Nader, Razieh and the others end up pleading their case not in an authoritarian courtroom, but in crowded police stations and offices that clearly need a paint job, to say the least. And the judges who end up trying to decide the truth look less like stentorian figures and more like harried bureaucrats. Despite the foreign setting, this is one way the film will seem relatable to audiences here. Another way is how Farhadi shows that, as in all domestic disputes, or disputes within the families, it’s the children who always get caught in the middle. There’s an excellent scene late in the film where Termeh and Somayeh glance at each other across a room, and you can sense the powerlessness they both feel.

Farhadi works in a naturalistic style; there’s almost no music I can remember (if there was, it was only background music), and it’s shot simply, without any visual flourishes. Yet, again, it’s never boring, and structurally, it has the pull of a thriller (or at least, as I said before, a mystery). It also has great performances all around. Particularly good, as you might gather, are Moaadi, who is able to make Nader a more complicated character than he first appears, and Farhadi’s daughter Sarina, who, while not quite in her teens, has the gravity of someone who has been forced to grow up all too quickly. I know the open-ended conclusion of the movie bothered some people, but it hinges on a choice one character has to make, and endorsing either choice would violate the spirit of the movie. In that sense, along with RashomonA Separation also brings to mind the memorable line from Jean Renoir’s classic film The Rules of the Game, where a character played by Renoir himself muses, “The awful thing about life is that everybody has their reasons.” Of course, that was in a different kind of society than the one Farhadi portrays, but the principle is still the same, and while Farhadi’s film may not be on the level of Kurosawa’s or Renoir’s, it’s still a terrific film.

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