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‘The New Boy’ Review: Cate Blanchett Is the Star But Not the Standout of Warwick Thornton’s Striking Drama About Spiritual Survival

Warwick Thornton has been doubling as cinematographer on his projects since back before his debut, Samson & Delilah, won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2009. But the Indigenous Australian director’s command of visual storytelling has possibly never been as striking as it is in the rural setting of his third narrative feature, The New Boy. Frequently, the rolling hills and wheat fields, the harvest scenes, shots of a fire tearing through crops or even a steam train chugging across the landscape seem a direct tip of the hat to the descriptive beauty of Néstor Almendros’ influential work on Days of Heaven.

If Thornton’s screenplay at times smudges the focus in charting the uneasy intersection between Christian dogma and Indigenous spirituality, the core of personal experience, of learning to straddle those two worlds in the director’s own childhood, gives the film sincerity and heart.

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Its flaws, strangely enough, lie chiefly around the space given to Cate Blanchett (who’s also a producer, along with her husband, Andrew Upton) to dial up the feverish intensity as a renegade nun, who has kept quiet to authorities about the death of the elderly monk in charge and taken over running of the remote orphanage in 1940s regional Australia.

Fresh off her mercurial performance in Tár, Blanchett as always is a compelling, full-tilt performer and many audiences will want nothing less from her. But the spiral of Sister Eileen as the action progresses and she starts hitting the red wine, fearing the title character’s special magic and perhaps even questioning her faith, becomes almost a distraction from the more moving part of the story — the boy’s navigation of this unfamiliar world and its rules, attempting to find a place in it without surrendering his sense of himself.

Thornton’s script is as much at fault in this as anything Blanchett is doing in the role. There’s a nagging sense that the unnamed boy’s struggle, along with the theme of religious colonization and the monolithic force of Christianity imposed on Indigenous cultures, would work just as well with a white authority figure whose sanity wasn’t hanging in the balance.

The movie opens with an attention-grabbing demonstration of the disproportionate strength packed into the small body of the protagonist — played by 11-year-old discovery Aswan Reid with the inbuilt tenacity of a wild survivalist. As Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ majestic score intensifies, the kid chokes a horseback police officer and takes off across a vast empty plain before being felled by a boomerang. The assumption that the weapon was wielded by an Aboriginal law enforcement recruit is an economical early nod by Thornton to the one-sided bargain of co-existence.

Transported in a potato sack like the catch from a hunt, the “new boy,” as he becomes known, is dumped at a Benedictine monastery that serves as a mission for orphaned Indigenous children. The gruff delivery officer informs Sister Eileen only that the boy has no name and is a “bolter,” meaning likely to run away. But the nun brushes off the man’s contempt and goes about her business, allowing the new arrival to emerge from hiding and explore his new surroundings in his own time.

Rather than sleep on the dormitory bed he’s assigned, the new boy sleeps under it on the floor, amusing himself by rubbing his fingers together to create a sparkling ball of light that he later uses as a healing tool.

Two Indigenous adults help Sister Eileen manage the orphanage — a nun whose maternal nature earned her the name Sister Mum (Deborah Mailman) cooks and keeps house while farmhand George (Wayne Blair) runs the agricultural endeavors with the boys’ help. With minimal oversight and comfortable conditions, George says he’s “on a good wicket” and doesn’t want that jeopardized by the undisciplined new boy, who represents an ancient culture he has largely left behind.

Sister Eileen is indulgent with the new boy, turning a blind eye when he declines to pull his weight with chores or learn table manners, or wanders out during church services. The other young residents, led by head boy Michael (Shane McKenzie-Brady), are more resentful of his special treatment, though he soon shows them not to mess with him by flooring a challenger twice his size with one punch. He speaks no English and remains mostly silent, though he learns the word “Amen” and uses it whether appropriate or not.

The arrival of a valuable religious relic, a life-sized carved wooden crucifix sent from Europe to prevent it being damaged in the war, fascinates the new boy even before it’s hung above the church altar. But the child’s sudden fixation with the Christ figure yields confusion not only in him — he pierces his own hands with nails, stigmata-like, and brings snakes to the foot of the cross as an offering — but also to the increasingly overwrought Sister Eileen. Eventually, she turns to baptism as the path to salvation for the “lost boy.”

The ambiguous ending might leave some unsatisfied, but the story of the new boy’s spiritual power and the use of Christianity as a force to contain it is one of pathos and resilience. A remarkably promising young untrained actor, Reid shades his characterization with deep-rooted defiance as well as innocence, with wonder and instinctive distrust whenever his freedom is threatened. There are lovely moments in which The New Boy adopts a style akin to the simplicity and enchantment of children’s stories, qualities that seem to spring directly from its protagonist.

Watching Reid break into an ecstatic dance as the new boy takes in the magic of a radio for the first time is a testament to the unbridled liberty he enjoys as an outsider, if not for long. That image is sorrowfully offset by a lovely shot of Sister Mum in her room, swaying to the music and weeping quietly while clutching a framed photograph of herself with her two daughters to her chest. It’s a given that those children were taken out of her care by the authorities, part of Australia’s “Stolen Children” generation.

Blanchett brings welcome moments of levity as Sister Eileen becomes giddy with excitement about the crucifix, or when she ropes in Sister Mum to help act out an altercation behind closed doors with the deceased monk supposedly still in charge and now too addled with dementia to sign for the delivery. There’s an interesting duality about the character, solemnly intoning the Word of God one moment and then forging letters containing falsehoods to the government’s “Aboriginal Protector” the next. The problem is that there’s more than is necessary of Sister Eileen’s growing hysteria, which upsets the story’s balance.

That said, this is an original, ultimately affecting meditation on the battle to save souls, not as an act of holiness but one of oppressive control. Even when its storytelling occasionally falters, the visual power of Thornton’s gorgeous compositions — in the monastery’s chiaroscuro interiors as well as the sprawling landscapes in the northern part of South Australia, near the former mining town, Burra — remains transfixing.

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