The New Boy

Peter W Sheehan 4 July 2023

This Australian drama tells the story of a young Indigenous orphan who is educated in a remote religious institution in outback Australia, under the watchful gaze of a renegade Catholic nun

THE NEW BOY. Starring: Cate Blanchett, Aswan Reid, Deborah Mailman and Wayne Blair. Directed by Warwick Thornton. Rated M (Mature themes). 116 min.

The movie opened the Sydney Film Festival in June 2023 and tells the story of a 9-year-old Indigenous orphan, New Boy (Reid), who arrives unexpectedly at a Catholic orphanage in the middle of the night.

The film is a story of survival in outback Australia in the 1940s, during World War II. The film opens with New Boy in serious conflict with the police. Wildly boisterous, he is captured, put into a sack, and dumped at a remote orphanage in Outback Australia. The orphanage is run sternly by Sister Eileen (Blanchett) who is in charge, and by her kindly helper, Sister Mum (Mailman).

Sister Eileen tries to settle New Boy down in his new environment, and New Boy bonds a little more easily with Sister Mum and George (Blair), who looks after the orphanage’s farmlands. When New Boy resists the bullying practices of his classmates, he starts to express supernatural powers. When they occur, they arouse the religious zeal of Sister Eileen, who thinks New Boy is evidencing a divine presence. New Boy’s powers convince Sister Eileen she needs to convert him. Mysteriously, New Boy cures snake bites, plays with sparks that dance across his fingers, and he bleeds from his palms, as Christ bled from the Cross. The film deftly combines spirituality and ‘miracle events’, and Reid as New Boy adroitly captures the mix.

The relevance of themes of colonialism and religion are signposted throughout the movie, and Blanchett plays Sister Eileen with repressed emotion. The film depicts an Indigenous spirituality that sits with Christian doctrine in ways that mirror Warwick Thornton’s personal experiences as an Indigenous boy, aged 11, who was brought up in a Catholic boarding school. A statue of the Crucified Christ is delivered to the orphanage halfway through the film, and becomes the focus of major tension between Indigenous and Catholic beliefs. Until he is made ready for baptism, Sister Eileen won’t let New Boy be personally identified, and she doesn’t want any interference by the Church in managing a boy who has ‘a passion for Christ’. She unethically fakes a dead priest’s signature to obtain the crucifix, which becomes the centre point for New Boy’s preoccupations and for his supernatural powers. The crucifix is also the focus for the appearance of stigmata on New Boy’s hands. Sister Eileen tries to re-direct New Boy’s spirituality to convert him to her beliefs. She believes that devout Christianity and Indigenous Spirituality don’t obviously belong together, and Warwick Thornton directs his film to argue that Catholicism and Christianity have a complex relationship to Indigenous Spirituality. Sister Eileen hysterically believes baptism is the correct path for New Boy, to ensure he is not ‘lost’.

The film is visually expressive, very heavily symbolic, and totally engrossing. It uses excellent cinematography (by Thornton) to show remote Australian landscapes, that demonstrate the bleak, majestic nature of their vistas.

Blanchett, as Sister Eileen, tries unsuccessfully to reconcile New Boy’s powers with her faith, and New Boy’s powers ebb away after Sister Eileen baptises him.

Cate Blanchett takes a secondary acting role behind Reid, who impressively delivers an almost wordless performance. This film is an inventive, absorbing religious drama that meditates thoughtfully and creatively – though unsettlingly – on the history of Indigenous Peoples, the interaction of Indigenous beliefs with Christian beliefs, and on religious fervour.

Roadshow Films

Released 6 July 2023



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