London Film Festival Review: Warwick Thornton’s ‘The New Boy’

The New Boy Review - 2023 Warwick Thornton Movie Film

Vague Visages’ The New Boy review contains minor spoilers. Warwick Thornton’s 2023 movie features Cate Blanchett, Aswan Reid and Deborah Mailman. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.


The main reason Christianity is the most widely-practiced religion across the world is due to colonialism. The dominant religion of Europe easily became the dominant religion of the Americas, Africa and Oceania when European invaders arrived, bringing not just violence and technology, but also a new theology and a new system of beliefs.

Whether new converts brought into Christianity because of convenience or sincere beliefs in its teachings is, obviously, a much trickier question to answer, with a wide degree of variance from person to person, group to group. Today, many folks from groups determined to be the “Other” by Christian missionaries are now deeply fervent in their beliefs. Christianity, colonialism, the history of racialization and the eradication of indigenous beliefs are deeply intertwined.

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The New Boy Review - 2023 Warwick Thornton Movie Film

Warwick Thornton’s The New Boy, his first feature film since 2017’s Sweet Country, tells the story of an orphan boy (Aswan Reid) who is kidnapped and taken to a Catholic orphanage-farm, headed up by Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett), with help from Sister Mum (Deborah Mailman) and handyman George (Wayne Blair). Largely mute, the orphan — christened “New Boy” by everyone else — eventually emerges as some kind of semi-messianic figure on the farm, as the title character experiences healing powers and an ability to converse with snakes. Plus, bouts of stigmata make the connections obvious.

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The New Boy takes place sometime during WWII, with young men and goods all redirected to the war effort, ensuring a sparse, austere material space for the audience. Thornton isn’t interested in moralistic statements about the very real terrors of colonialism, as he assumes that viewers know that the oppression and genocide of indigenous Australians is a tragedy and a crime. The New Boy is rather more interested in the sincerity of faith at its center, and the way indigenous and Christian beliefs intersect or conflict. Thornton recognizes that the two adult Indigenous Australian characters — Sister Mum and George — are otherwise genuine members of the flock, regardless of the forces of oppression and coercion that may have led them to this point. Sister Eileen may be a stern, commanding matriarch, but she’s also generous with her time and love. The other boys in the orphanage (all given Biblical names) are, at first, threatening and bullying, yet they learn to back off gradually.

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The New Boy Review - 2023 Warwick Thornton Movie Film

Thornton’s film is tricky, slippery and evocative. With the writer-director working as his own cinematographer,The New Boy’s warm, golden-tinged images recall classic Westerns. Indeed, there is something mythological at play, as the “supernatural” is taken at face value. Not only are the film’s semi-Messianic qualities relegated to the title character’s inner circle, but there are also motifs throughout, most particularly a crucified wooden statue of Jesus who seems capable of breathing, sighing, blinking and winking to Reid’s character. There’s little shock and awe — just a serene acceptance that these points of “unreality” are, in fact, real to the protagonists.

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The New Boy doesn’t necessarily depict  a realistic, concrete depiction of religious activity, but more of a filmic equivalent of the biggest step in any form of religious belief — that small leap of faith that allows one to take these beliefs as being part of the fabric of reality. Whether one’s beliefs are Christian or rooted in the spirituality of the indigenous Australian people, the character beliefs in The New Boy are indeed real, and as such form one’s daily existence. These beliefs in turn form values and social structures, all of which respond to the world around them. To forcibly take these beliefs away from someone is an act of violence, but even if we are to assume that the imposition of Christian beliefs on New Boy, Sister Mum, George and the majority of the orphanage’s indigenous children is an act of violence, then how does their sincerity in Christian beliefs complicate this relationship?

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The New Boy Review - 2023 Warwick Thornton Movie Film

There’s no easy answer to that question of course, but Thornton is willing to get his hands deep into such hefty thinking, with a richness of theological ambiguity throughout The New Boy. There’s no judgement at play — let he who is without sin cast the first stone — but rather a lyrical, metaphysical interest in how the presence of New Boy creates quiet ripples throughout his small, hermetic community. One could argue that New Boy’s “supernatural’ abilities, within the context of an isolated farm in what appears to be a bucolic rolling landscape of golden fields and refreshing streams, function as imageries of a new Eden, where indigenous Australian beliefs (and their more sensitive relationship to the Earth than modern Christianity) are given a place equal to or above Christianity’s philosophy of love and forgiveness unto your neighbor. As for New Boy’s relationship with snakes, they are not Satan sent to tempt Adam and Eve into the Forbidden Fruit, but rather natural beings at one with the land, to be treated with respect and a healthy fear. The positive parts of Christian theology are largely embraced in The New Boy, and the film’s negative aspects — the fear, angst and patriarchal control — are muddied, with Sister Eileen even pretending to be the orphanage’s now-deceased head priest in letters, so as to maintain their strange, untouched idyll.

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The New Boy doesn’t shy away from the colonial history behind Catholicism’s presence in Australia. After all, the film starts with the brutal kidnapping of New Boy, but it’s not interested in repeating this statement throughout. To do so insults the audience’s intelligence (which is probably why The New Boy has received a muted response on the festival circuit so far, whilst trash such as Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest gets five-star plaudits out of two hours of “the Nazis were bad, y’know”). But Thornton’s drama is that rare film that’s willing to step beyond obvious moral platitudes to dive into something more empathetic, something that’s no doubt much harder to achieve — a sense of wonderment and sincerity that’s only possible with belief in something beyond the world around us, regardless of what one’s belief system may be.

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The New Boy Review - 2023 Warwick Thornton Movie Film

Of course, such haughty and lofty aims for a filmmaker are impossible without the requisite technical qualities to pull it off. I’ve already remarked on Thornton’s incredible image-making qualities in The New Boy, but credit must also go to the performances. Blanchett is the star name, yet she’s always been a supreme professional, willing to tamp down her A-lister qualities in favor of an earthier, more humble performance when the context calls for it. Reid may only be 11 years old, but there’s a simplicity and pureness to his screen presence that makes him utterly engrossing, capable of embodying both a young boy and a Messianic figure. The New Boy is a film of deep, mystical qualities, and I can’t wait to revisit it.

Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specializing in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that, he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.

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London Film Festival Review: Warwick Thornton's 'The New Boy'
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London Film Festival Review: Warwick Thornton's 'The New Boy'
"'The New Boy' is a film of deep, mystical qualities, and I can’t wait to revisit it."
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Vague Visages
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