Since the release of his award-winning debut feature 'Samson and Delilah' in 2009, filmmaker and Kaytetye man Warwick Thornton has established himself as one of the finest Australian directors working today. His work spreads across features, shorts, documentary and television, but his rapturously executed and deeply affecting features have brought a brutal truth to the experiences, both past and present, of our First Nations peoples. In 2017, I wrote in my review for his devastating masterpiece 'Sweet Country' that it was one of the most important films produced in Australia. As a consequence, any film from Thornton is an event as far as I am concerned, and this is very much the case with his latest film, 'The New Boy', a gorgeous piece that preserves his specificity and fury but through an unexpected lens.
During the Second World War, a young boy (Aswan Reid, in his debut role) is taken from his Country and placed in the care of a catholic-run school for Aboriginal boys, overseen by Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett, 'Tar'). With the help of Sister Mum (Deborah Mailman, 'The Sapphires') and groundskeeper George (Wayne Blair, 'Seriously Red'), Sister Eileen aims to grow these boys into good Christian men, albeit with a touch more humanity than they would likely receive in the average Christian mission. This "New Boy", however, isn't quite like the others. He is silent, inquisitive and tends to sit back and watch, but everyone immediately clocks that he has an awareness they don't. He may even have natural gifts beyond their understanding.
Carefully conceived and gently executed, 'The New Boy' sees Thornton (as writer, director and cinematographer) playing in the field of fable. For the most part, the plot falls away in place of character, and even then, we essentially know very little about New Boy other than what we observe. What we learn, we do so through his eyes, his perspective beautifully rendered, but this isn't a problematic tale of a First Nations boy being dazzled by western ways and traditions. New Boy sees this new world with a bemused, almost unsettled curiosity, observing the rules and rituals that govern both the monastery and the religion that dictates it. This renders familiar rituals with a degree of strangeness and emphasises just how counterproductive and incompatible they are with the Australian landscape and the people who were here before us.
What sets Sister Eileen and her monastery apart though is that the kind of cruelty that exists for Indigenous peoples outside of their walls doesn't have a place here in her care. When we first meet her, she actively defends New Boy from violence, and over the course of the film, she is reticent to deliver any form of punishment on the boys. As refreshing as this is to see from a white Australian character in this context (certainly after the unspeakable cruelty in 'Sweet Country'), Thornton is careful not to absolve her of her complicity in the destruction of a culture. She may lead with kindness, but that kindness is still dictated by western Judaeo-Christian values, a belief in the superiority of Christianity as a religion and way of life. She is careful not to force her beliefs onto New Boy straight away, but trapped within this space (as loving as it is) gives him no choice but to be worn down to comply with it. In the end, as well-meaning as a person like Sister Eileen might be, this is still well-meaning on her terms. This is reflected in the quietly tragic lives of Sister Mum (who has lost both her children) and George. Both protect the sanctity of this community in their own ways in order to preserve their safety and that of the boys, but they acutely understand what has been lost in the process, that they and the boys have been forced to sever connections to Country and community.
SWITCH: 'THE NEW BOY' TRAILER
That connection is something that New Boy, for the most part, is able to maintain, by virtue of his supernatural abilities. These are represented, in secret late at night, by a small flickering light that emerges from the palms of his hands. This spirit is playful, comforting and deeply alive, something private and personal within the increasingly impersonal environment of the monastery. This spirit also gives New Boy other abilities that he uses to help those around him and to give him a perspective of the world others lack. It's always a dangerous thing to introduce the supernatural into a film so steeped in historical realism, but Thornton knows just how to introduce it, how to carefully maintain it and, most importantly, what its function is. Metaphorically, it speaks to the resilience of First Nations peoples in the face of oppression, invasion and decimation, a spark that connects them with where they come from and allows them to keep going. The conflict in the film, ultimately, is between this inherent spirit within New Boy and the beguiling, strange Christianity slowly weighing itself down on him. The former has no interest in the latter, but the latter simply cannot conceive of a world where the former exists.
This idea of spiritual mysticism in 'The New Boy' recalls similar choices in Baz Luhrmann's 'Australia' (2008), but that film stumbles in its handling of manifesting Aboriginal peoples' relationships with the land by rooting it in a kind of strange orientalism and by overexplaining it (again) in western terms. Thornton does not take any time to explain who New Boy is, where he has come from or why he can do what he does, and the film is infinitely better for it. To explain any of this would be to do so in those western terms, and western language does not accommodate for this kind of experience or relationship. He is exploring this spirituality on his terms and expects us (rightly so) to accept it and move with it. That spiritual connection to Country also works as a perfect counterpoint to the Christian imagery and ritual in the film. The symbol for New Boy's spirituality is a flickering ball of light, but Sister Eileen's is an imposing wooden figure of a man nailed to a cross in a state of agony. New Boy is fascinated by this man and his suffering, the contradiction and confusion of this symbol ultimately leading him into its clutches. His world is one of life and light, of the animals and plants around him that he approaches with care and understanding. Theirs is a world of cold, hard death, of lifelessness. Another tremendous subversion that Thornton weaves into the film is how closely New Boy's gifts align with those of Christ, the quiet revolt in having an Aboriginal boy embody the qualities of the traditional white symbolic figure used as an excuse for the mistreatment of his people.
This thematic richness is supported by a clear, uncluttered screenplay and an astonishing attention to visual and historical detail. The monastery, beautifully realised by production designer Amy Baker and art director Daniel Willis, floats atop a hill surrounded by fields of wheat, like a fairytale castle. It is tactile, tangible and mythical all at once, removed from the chaos and cruelty of the world beyond the horizon. The collision between religion and landscape in the film recalls the richness of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1947 masterpiece 'Black Narcissus', especially in how Sister Eileen's faith has to contend with an environment (both the physical and that embodied in New Boy) that pushes back against her desire to shape it. Again, she does so with optimism and generosity, but it is again on her terms, and her moments of collapse, so beautifully realised by Cate Blanchett, recall similar conflicts in Deborah Kerr in 'Black Narcissus'. The performances are Thornton's most subdued triumph in the film, but a triumph nonetheless. A performance as detailed and fascinating as Blanchett's, or as devastating as Mailman's and as unsettled as Blair's, do not come without the close working relationship between actor and director. Even the stranger aspects of Blanchett's performance are carefully calibrated to work within the film Thornton is constructing, adding to the sense of 'The New Boy' as a fable on the subtle insidiousness of colonialism. Great direction is not just about knowing what to say at the right time but also knowing when to give space for magic to happen, and this is Thornton's great gift when working with actors. This is most apparent in the luminous performance by Aswan Reid, whose quiet intensity and insatiable curiosity hold you enraptured in every frame he appears, and ultimately leads to the careful, crushing final scenes.
The conflict in the film, ultimately, is between this inherent spirit within New Boy and the beguiling, strange Christianity slowly weighing itself down on him. The former has no interest in the latter, but the latter simply cannot conceive of a world where the former exists.
It would be remiss not to comment on Thornton's cinematography in 'The New Boy', an example of a director/cinematographer achievement not that far from Alfonso Cuaron's 'Roma' (2018). Thornton's understanding of his material allows him to capture the world of the monastery in such a way that every shot is in service to his thesis, the beauty and conflict of this incongruous setting against this magnificent landscape. While the spaces of the monastery are controlled and simple, unadorned and functional, the sky beyond is the cathedral, a staggering canvas of colour and space. Cinematography is the art of painting with light, and Thornton's understanding of the relationship between light and lens is displayed in full force in this film. There were countless images that took my breath away, not just for their aesthetic beauty but for how perfectly they expressed the thematic and emotional heart of the film and its titular character. Not only is Thornton one of our finest directors, he is also one of our finest cinematographers.
'The New Boy' is an incandescent, beguiling and quietly devastating fable on the most incidental ways the continued crimes of colonisation in this country have devastated our Indigenous peoples, using "well-meaning" tools of religion to strip culture of its autonomy and its right to exist. Those tools may be wielded with "love", but we are still complicit in a smothering force that leaves no room for any other form of spirituality or cultural identity. And yet, despite the gentle tragedy delivered at the end of the film and despite the unstoppable march of colonialism, the will to survive still exists, fierce and bright and persistent. I can sit there as a well-meaning white Australian, completely in support of the rights of our First Nations communities, and be deeply moved by the power of this film, but that little spark in New Boy's hands will never mean as much to me as for an Aboriginal or Torres Strait audience member. Hidden within the sadness of 'The New Boy' is a river of hope, a hope that those well- meaning figures like Sister Eileen may one day learn to listen, to fully listen, to those they claim to speak for, and for that persistent, powerful spark will survive through adversity. Considering the crossroads we Australians are approaching, with the upcoming referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, Warwick Thornton's quietly magnificent film could not have come at a better time.