Cate Blanchett stars in this spiritual drama about an Indigenous Australian boy’s encounter with Christianity
Dir/scr: Warwick Thornton. Australia. 2023. 116 mins.
Warwick Thornton’s The New Boy, co-starring and produced by Cate Blanchett, is, at heart, a simple story of a young Indigenous Australian lad brought to a religious orphanage in order to be turned around and sent out to the world in an acceptable shape for the white establishment. What sets it apart is Thornton’s deep spirituality, examined here as the titular ‘The New Boy’ encounters – and explores – Christianity. But it is not a two-way street: Christianity will never accept who he is.
The New Boy himself can seem like a dream
There’s a cinematic magic to Thornton’s work, as evidenced in the award-winning Samson and Delilah (2009) and 2017’s Sweet Country. His perspective as an Aboriginal film-maker is uniquely beautiful and the stories he tells are related as he feels them, resulting in a visual experience which runs quietly deeper than the words and performances. Although unconventional in its own way, The New Boy is also his most conventional ‘story’ to date. Blanchett’s appearance – playing Sister Eileen, who runs the orphanage/church in her own eccentric way – will help this easily-digestible film into select theatrical play, although the fussiness her character lends to the still narrative is not always the film’s most appealing element.
The sheer beauty of Southern Australia is never in doubt; Thornton constructed his set near the old mining town of Burra and filmed in that single location. As usual, he directed, wrote and lensed the film, which comes directly from his own personal experience of being sent to a remote boarding school as a young boy after getting into trouble at his home in Alice Springs. The New Boy (Aswan Reid), though, is a more wild and natural force, first shown being captured in the desert by a horseback police patrol. This may be an establishing sequence, but Thornton gives us the Aboriginal lad’s ferocity, the steam-engined Australia of the wartime 1940 and the founding notes of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s emotional score before The New Boy ever arrives at Sister Eileen’s remote boarding school of eight Indigenous boys.
We understand immediately that this silent boy has special powers, which he uses to comfort himself as he tries to figure out where – and what – he is now part of. Thornton manifests these with a sparkling light, but they may just be a part of the child’s powerful spiritual make-up. Apart from Sister Eileen, two Aboriginal helpers run the establishment: George (Wayne Blair), who recognises in the child a wildness he has long left behind, and the caring Sister Mum (Deborah Mailman). With labour shortages a problem in wartime Australia, the boys go out with George to pull their weight on the land.
Sister Eileen is given a great deal of personality quirks for a 1940s nun (her legs have bandages which keep unravelling, she drinks too much red wine, has a vague British accent and runs around a lot, none of which traits have any significance to the story but seem written in to give Blanchett something to do apart from scratching at her wimple in the heat). More germane to the plot is the fact that she’s covering up the death of Dom Peter, who ran the monastery up to a year ago with a far more brutal hand.
As a statue of the Virgin surveys the wide open landscapes and indigo light of South Australia at dusk, the mute New Boy learns to acclimatise himself to the monastery and the pecking order amongst the boys – although he’ll never figure out how to use a spoon. He sleeps under the bed, and follows Sister Eileen around; while all the other boys are dressed in regulation khaki shirts and sandals, he will only wear shorts. Whatever order there is in the monastery, however, is disrupted by the arrival of a large crucifix, sent from Europe for shelter during the war. The New Boy can’t look away from it, bringing the dark mahogany Jesus offerings of snakes and, eventually, manifesting the statue’s stigmata. For Sister Eileen, and Australia, though, there’s only one acceptable spirituality: they cannot co-exist.
Aboriginal storytelling is influenced by the Dreamtime of their creation legends. The New Boy himself can seem like a dream, an elemental visitor to the colonisers who cannot accept him or what he stands for, although he tries to understand theirs. It is all to his loss, Thornton points out, and theirs.
Production companies: Dirty Films, Scarlett Pictures
International sales: Veterans, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Kath Shelper, Andrew Upton, Cate Blanchett, Lorenzo de Maio
Screenplay: Warwick Thornton
Cinematography: Warwick Thornton
Production design: Amy Baker
Editing: Nick Meyers
Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Main cast: Aswan Reid, Cate Blanchett, Wayne Blair, Deborah Mailman