THE NEW BOY Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Warwick Thornton
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Deborah Mailman, Wayne Blair, Aswan Reid.
This is the third film from indigenous filmmaker Warrick Thornton following Samson & Delilah and the award-winning Sweet Country. The New Boy opened the Sydney Film Festival and has now gained a theatrical release. And although the film deals with indigenous issues it is nowhere near as powerful nor as compelling as his first two films.
The film is set in a remote Catholic run outback orphanage for boys in the 1940s. The orphanage is run by the officious Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett) who has taken charge since the recent death of the elderly cleric in charge. Helping her run the orphanage are Sister Mum (Deborah Mailman, from The Sapphires, etc) who also doubles as the cook, and taciturn handyman George (Wayne Blair). Sister Eileen is a little eccentric in her ways and she enforces discipline on the group of 12-year-old boys under her care. Then a young aboriginal boy (played by newcomer Aswan Reid) is brought to the orphanage in the middle of the night by a policeman, and his presence has an immediate unsettling effect on the place and its staff. He has some supernatural healing powers and can create sparks from his hands. And his silent but inquisitive presence definitely further unsettles Sister Eileen, who is unsure what to make of him. Initially the boy struggles to fit in with the other boys in the orphanage. Meanwhile, the boy becomes fascinated by a giant crucifix delivered to the orphanage.
The film was shot on location in South Australia, and, as usual, Thornton himself also acted as cinematographer. He uses an orange hued palette which reflects the oppressive setting and the harsh landscapes, and he gives the material a lyrical look. The images are accompanied by the typically robust score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Apparently, Thornton wrote early drafts of the film twenty years ago and much of it has been inspired by his own experiences of being raised in a Christian boarding school in Western Australia.
The film looks at the clash between indigenous culture and the destructive effects of colonialism and religion on indigenous spirituality and culture, but Thornton takes care not to turn the film into a political polemic. Thornton has also built in plenty of magical realism and religious symbolism, as he explores the conflict between Christianity and traditional indigenous lore, spirituality and mysticism. And Thornton includes an enigmatic allegorical element here too as the boy becomes something of a Christlike figure.
In his first film role Reid delivers a largely wordless performance here as the unnamed titular new boy, but he effectively conveys so much through his gestures and expressions. He makes his presence felt and conveys his curiosity and captures a childlike innocence. Blanchett is also strong, but she remains more of an enigmatic figure here as the troubled Sister Eileen and delivers an understated performance. Mailman has an empathetic presence while Blair (himself an indigenous filmmaker of some repute) brings dignity and restraint to his performance.
The New Boy is a leisurely paced drama that lacks momentum, and it contains minimal dialogue, and Thornton creates a certain mood throughout. But its cryptic and elusive narrative means it is a film that will mainly appeal to discerning art house audiences.