Release date : 6 July, 2023
- Latest Movies Review Rating: (2.5/5)
Director: Warwick Thornton
Writers : Warwick Thornton
Producer: Kath Shelper, Andrew Upton, Cate Blanchett, Lorenzo de Maio
Music By : Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Cinematography By : Warwick Thornton
Star Cast : Aswan Reid, Cate Blanchett, Wayne Blair, Deborah Mailman
No name is given to the new boy, and he refuses to offer one either. When an Aboriginal newcomer shows up at a remote orphanage in rural South Australia in the early 1940s, the two nuns who run the facility welcome him with quick kindness, but privileges like names are reserved for kids who are a little further along in their comprehension and acceptance of this establishment’s firm Christian principles: The shirtless, largely silent newcomer will be acknowledged but not identified until he’s ready for baptism. In Warwick Thornton’s thoughtful magical-realist fable “The New Boy,” spiritual differences aren’t dealt with violently, but they still evoke bloody territorial conflict. This limbo state evocatively depicts the tension between Australia’s Indigenous population and even the most notionally inclusive of their colonizers.
This ambitious, tone-challenged film, which draws inspiration from Thornton’s own experiences as an Aboriginal boy growing up in a Christian boarding school, adds an unexpected touch of whimsy to social issues that are more austerely explored in Thornton’s excellent previous works “Samson and Delilah” and “Sweet Country.” The picture is meandering but never boring, and like its predecessors, it benefits from the exceptional eye for light and location that its writer-director-cinematographer possesses. This eye goes beyond dewy pictorialism to recover a landscape from its intimidating invaders. The film’s visual splendor and producer Cate Blanchett’s ripely entertaining performance as the eccentric abbess of the orphanage serve as its main selling points to foreign audiences; in the title role, kinetic, wide-eyed rookie Aswan Reid is its secret weapon.
The unnamed pre-teen boy is kidnapped by horseback police on a parched stretch of Outback desert, fighting his way free before being struck down by a returning boomerang. In the propulsive, boldly stylized opening scene, which is heavy on slow-motion and the most reverberating excesses of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s typically expressive score, he is introduced to us as a frenzied whirl of movement. He is unceremoniously deposited on the doorway of Sister Eileen (Blanchett), who operates a small shelter for similarly abandoned boys, many of whom are Indigenous, in a rural monastery surrounded by wheat fields and olive groves, after being tied in a hessian sack and driven far from home.
With the help of two Aboriginal coworkers, fellow nun and matron figure Sister Mum (a wonderful Deborah Mailman), and hulking farmhand George (Wayne Blair), Sister Eileen tries her best to avoid drawing the patriarchal interventions of the Church while war rages abroad and the monastery’s presiding monk has recently passed away. Because she doesn’t enjoy corporal punishment as much as the late monk did, for example, the environment is more permissive than you might anticipate in such a facility. As a result, the newcomer’s uncouth behavior—he can’t speak English, eats with his hands, and sleeps under his bed rather than on it—isn’t immediately dealt with.
Sister Eileen, being the obedient nun that she is, is passionate about conversion. And in this aspect, the new youngster poses greater difficulties than others because he seems to be able to cure wounds with his touch and may possess otherworldly spiritual abilities. He doesn’t reject the idea of Jesus; in fact, he welcomes a massive, ornately carved crucifix that has been brought from France to the chapel for safekeeping during the Nazi invasion with the same eagerness as he would a tree in his native environment. The good Sister, despite having the best of intentions, isn’t creative enough to see the connections or similarities between his and her worldviews. She also finds it impossible to imagine Indigenous spirituality and fervent Christianity existing side by side in the same mind. The former must be eradicated for the latter to flourish, even at the expense of potential miracle-working.
The ensuing struggle of wills and beliefs is gradual and perhaps silent. Thornton is less interested in blood-and-soil battles than in a more subtly persistent sense of dread surrounding the foreign, with Sister Mum and George knowing more than they’re willing to admit about the other world that has appeared in their midst unexpectedly. Although there is clever, witty symbolism here as well, Thornton sometimes overemphasizes the historical and allegorical resonances of this peculiar duel: The new boy’s first baptism is not with holy water but with stinging sheep dip for head lice, an animal treatment for an intruder not yet accepted into the human flock.
At some point in their careers, nearly all leading ladies of the movie are required to portray nuns, and Blanchett approaches this dramatic rite with vigor, finding all kinds of humanizing quirks in Sister Eileen’s authoritative gait, perplexed look, and pinched, tremulous lecturing style. If Reid weren’t her opposing match in that regard, as silent and penetratingly attentive as she is fretfully busy, the star’s undiminished magnetism as a performer occasionally threatened to distract from the plainer ideological problems at hand. He maintains a point of view on his scenes that makes even some difficult swerves into fantasy terrain realistic. He has a passionate, really otherworldly presence that never falls into fey savant cliché.
The more intricate elements of the movie are counterbalanced by Thornton’s assured visual serenity: As DP, he emphasizes the clear, scalding beams of sunlight and the limitless horizon as the dominant lines of the natural world over the tiny, detailed structures of human occupancy, bathing everything in earthy ochres and burnt khakis. Under immaculate, sloping rows of wheat, there is still a remembrance of the untamed nature that still belongs to the new lad and his people, of the mysterious energies he gets from that land, even as they are being pushed away from it and into Western prison.