Spiritual bonding: Cate Blanchett and Aswan Reid in ‘The New Boy’.
THE NEW BOY **** (116 minutes) M
Beautiful, lyrical and tinged with magical realism, the third feature film from Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah; Sweet Country) is a delicate exploration of faith and the collision of cultures.
Set in a remote Outback orphanage during World War 2, a troublesome aboriginal boy (Aswan Reid) is delivered to the fiery Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett), who runs the place with fellow nun Sister Mum (Deborah Mailman) and indigenous work hand George (Wayne Blair).
Sister Eileen takes her role as a spiritual guide to her young charges very seriously – so seriously, in fact, that she keeps from informing head office that the priest who is supposed to be in charge is quite dead.
To keep any meddling from derailing the good work she believes her small team is doing in the service of God, she pretends to be the dead priest, writing upbeat letters assuring Catholic HQ that all is well and that the profits from their crops will continue to flow.
Sister Eileen takes a special shine to the new boy (that’s all he’s called), hoping to enlighten him through the power of Christianity.
As it turns out he has his own special connection to the spiritual realm, a quality he keeps secret and which comes into sharp relief with the long-awaited arrival of a big wooden sculpture of Christ on the cross.
With stirring use of music from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and featuring richly atmospheric cinematography by Thornton, The New Boy is leisurely paced with a basic narrative composed of intersecting themes about faith, devotion and what can happen when competing notions of spirituality collide.
Driven more by mood and the subtle interplay of characters – with George’s suspicion of New Boy serving as the chief conflict – the film has an unforced pace and no overt agenda. If there’s an overriding theme, it’s about good intentions and how they operate in an alien and hostile landscape.
Taking pride of place in the pantheon of movie nuns, Blanchett is marvellously understated, imbuing Sister Eileen with an inner strength that is tested once she inevitably faces a force that lies beyond her experience. Newcomer Reid also does well in his film debut.
Thankfully, The New Boy is not the pretentious, boring, pseudo-political tub-thumping twaddle it could so easily have been, and which we’ve seen in many recent films dealing with indigenous themes.
Thornton deserves kudos for not shoe-horning in any “with it” messaging. There’s no decrying of colonialism (the presiding cliche of the day) or such like. It’s just a beautiful human story.
As to how the film will fare in cinemas, that’s another story.
To their credit, Thonton and Blanchett (also a producer on the film) have hit the publicity trail hard, doing TV interviews and Q&A sessions in the week leading up to the film’s release.
Hopefully, the film will attract the discerning arthouse audience it deserves and which it’s clearly going for.
But why, oh why, release such a small, delicate film on the same weekend as an all-consuming blockbuster like Mission Impossible 7? What chance does it realistically have?
Some, possibly. It could still work as counter programming with people seeking out The New Boy specifically to get away from the cinematic blancmange of yet another Hollywood blockbuster.
Then again, that might just be wishful thinking. Marketing, or the lack thereof, has long hobbled Australian cinema and, much as we revere Our Cate, her subdued presence in The New Boy is unlikely to compete with the pull of Tom Cruise.
Painful as it is to say, the fear is that The New Boy will go the way of so many Australian films and quietly sink into the swamp, largely ignored but for the few souls who dared to see it.
INSIDIOUS: THE RED DOOR ** (107 minutes) M
If the medicore offerings in the fifth film of the Insidious horror movie series is anything to go by it might be high time to wrap things up.
Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson, also directing for the first time) drives his typically disaffected son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) to college hoping to reconnect with him after the collapse of his marriage to Renai (Rose Byrne).
Bad ghosts from their past return to ruin their quiet time, resulting in a lot of very cheap scare tactics that even the easily frightened will find predictable and dull.
It’s long been the case that horror films don’t cost that much to make and can reap huge returns if they tap into the huge, lucrative and loyal horror fanbase.
That’s been the case for the Insidious franchise, which has a staggering box office-to-budget ratio of about 20-to-1.
So sincere kudos to creator Leigh Whannell (from Melbourne, no less), who also co-created the Saw franchise with James Wan. (There’s a 10th coming soon.)
As tired as Insidious 5 is, the law of the jungle is that if it turns a dollar there’ll be yet another one to tap into that strangely dedicated legion of horror lovers.
But seriously, how much haunting can one family take? Enough already.