The New Boy  (12A) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Warwick Thornton, Australia, 2023, 96 mins

Cast:  Asran Read, Cate Blanchett, Deborah Mailman

Review by Carol Allen

The New Boy is the latest film from Aboriginal Australian writer/director Warwick Thornton, and like his previous films Samson and Delilah (2009) and Sweet Country (2017) it is a story relating to his own indigenous people.   As a well respected cinematographer when not directing Thornton also shoots hiS own films, which all visually communicate the beauty of the Australian landscape. 

The story is set in Australia at the time of WW2, a period when the now notorious and discredited Australian policy was “breed out the black”, which involved separating indigenous and mixed race children from their people, bringing them up in a white environment, training them for menial work and converting them to Christianity.

Newcomer Asran Reid plays the “new boy” of the title.  He is a beautiful 9 year old child with dark skin and blond hair, who is captured in the outback and dumped in a sack at a home run by the church for aboriginal and mixed race orphaned boys.  Originally run by a male priest, who has now died, Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett) is now in charge.  To avoid interference with her charges from the church authorities, she has kept quiet about the death of her boss   She runs the place with Sister Mum (Deborah Mailman)  so called because she is the only mum the orphaned boys have, and George (Wayne Blair), the rather dour man of all work.

Totally unused to white people’s ways the new boy, as he is called, sleeps on the floor under his bed, and eats with his fingers.  But he’s bright, learns quickly, deals briskly with attempts to bully him and soon becomes part of the group. Sister Eileen is firm but kind and understanding with her charges but her purpose in life is to inculcate them into a Christian life.  New Boy however already has his own relationship with the infinite.    Quietly at night under his bed he produces light from his fingertips and when one of the boys is bitten by a poisonous snake when they’re all working in the fields, he is able to save him in a way somewhat mysterious to the others.

Then an enormous statue of the suffering Christ is delivered for the community’s little church.  It is a mystery to New Boy, who is horrified when he sees Sister Eileen nailing the statue’s hands to the cross.   He tries to climb the statue, to save the figure with his own magic.   Then his own hands start to bleed in sympathy.   There is a power here which is outside the Church’s understanding, a conflict between Christian belief and the apparent magic of the native Australian culture, between a grown woman and a child.  What will be the outcome?

The story is beautifully filmed, beautifully acted, particularly by young Asran Reid, who is charismatic.   Produced by Blanchett and her writer/director husband Andrew Upton, both long time directors of Sydney’s leading theatre company, and with music by Nick Cave, this is an enthralling piece of cinema.   If you want something different and more intriguing than the more usual cinematic face, it will be well worth your while to seek it out.