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In The New Boy, Warwick Thornton’s first film in six years, the Kaytetye director tells a mesmerising story of Indigenous spiritual transformation. By Andy Hazel.

Director Warwick Thornton

Greyscale image of a middle-aged man with a greying beard wearing a straw hat as he leans against a post.
Director Warwick Thornton.
Credit: Ben King

It’s 11am and outside the Perspex walls of the Marriott hotel balcony on Cannes’ La Croisette, it is drizzling and cold. Warwick Thornton, sitting on a black couch, frowns at the sky, lights a rollie and orders another coffee.

“And sugar, please,” he tells his publicist, before turning to me and nodding knowingly. “Then that will be it. You burn yourself out otherwise. In the afternoon you’re like, ‘Why am I so fucking tired?’ Too much coffee. Oh,” he adds to the departing publicist. “Could you make it a double? Thank you.”

Thornton is at the Cannes Film Festival for the world premiere of The New Boy, his beguiling and quietly powerful account of the spiritual clash between an Aboriginal boy and a renegade nun, Sister Eileen, played by Cate Blanchett. In a stunning slow-motion opening sequence set against the thud of horse hoofs, the whirr of a boomerang and the low drone of Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s score, the boy attacks a policeman, is stowed in a hessian sack and, in the dead of night, delivered to the door of a monastery run by Sister Eileen.

From there, the new boy exists in a kind of limbo. Neither giving nor being given a name, he becomes a shirtless, wordless presence amid the mission’s other boys. As with his previous films Samson & Delilah and Sweet Country, the power of The New Boy rests on the slender shoulders of a non-professional Aboriginal actor, in this case 11-year-old Aswan Reid. The film also marks Blanchett’s first role since her towering performance in Tár, a film Thornton is yet to see. Shaping the film beyond these two lauded performances is how Thornton creates the world in which they exist. From those opening scenes to the final frame is an affinity that feels drawn from biography. Rather than chasing the fidelity of memory, Thornton uses his experiences as a starting point.

“It’s fiction,” he says, pushing his reedy hair behind his ear. “Fiction. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that I know that I could never talk about, because it’s sacred and secret, you know what I mean? So, it’s fiction. But there is a taste of the way we think and look and the things that we might see.” It is this taste that The New Boy revels in, steeping its audience in gold- and tannin-hued vistas of South Australian wheat fields and Reid’s face as the boy delights in his connections to his ancestral world, a connection that is gradually lost as his curiosity about his new spiritual environment takes hold.

As he explains how difficult the film was to finance, even with Blanchett’s name attached, Thornton sits comfortably, flecking his conversation with phrases such as “do you know what I mean?” and “you know?” These are not thrown in as conversational filler: Thornton genuinely wants the listener to understand him. He wears a black T-shirt, black jeans and a loose black suit jacket, its broad lapels speckled with diamantés and rhinestones. Somehow, despite the rain and the thousands of miles he has travelled in the past few days, golden smudges of dust still cling to his black leather boots.

“I wrote this film 18 years ago,” he says, so quietly that I’m drawn closer until we’re almost huddling around the steam of his coffee and the smoke from his rollie, our backs against the weather. “I like to think it was written by a child and directed by a grumpy old man. I didn’t understand what it was I was wanting to say. I didn’t understand what the spark was, the genesis.”

Thornton’s youth was spent in and around Alice Springs, where he developed a reputation for antisocial behaviour. When skipping school and petty crime got too much for his mother, Freda Glynn, co-founder of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA), he was sent to a Benedictine mission in the Western Australian town of New Norcia. Established in the 1840s to educate and indoctrinate Indigenous Australians, Thornton is reluctant to discuss his time there, but its connection to The New Boy is clear.

“I went to a monastic boarding school when I was 11,” he says. “I had never been into a church before. As a child, the first time you walk into a church you see a bloke up there getting tortured. And it’s life-size. And it’s lifelike. And it pretty well scares the shit out of you. That image of the crucifixion is an image of fear. It’s supposed to go, ‘This is a very dangerous place and if you don’t conform, you’re going to burn’, you know what I mean? It’s designed to do that. As a child, it’s kind of like your first horror movie, walking in there. It’s a scary place.” He pauses, willing me to imagine it. “Part of the genesis of the movie was just, ‘Well, imagine if a kid came straight out of the desert and into that church. What the hell? What’s going on?’ ”

A striking quality of The New Boy is how Thornton sustains and uses this discomfort. Instead of making Reid’s character a powerless child and Blanchett’s a tyrant, their relationship is marked by a sense of curiosity, muted by their cultural distance. Sister Eileen is dealing with her own battles, most notably that she – along with Deborah Mailman’s Sister Mum and Wayne Blair’s groundskeeper George – is keeping secret the death of the mission’s founder, Dom Peter. Eileen lives in a purgatory of doubt between her drive to do God’s work and the lies she must tell to maintain the facade, sins she regularly confesses over Dom Peter’s recently interred grave. Thornton’s film is marked by an absence of judgement and a surprising lack of the brutality that marked his previous feature films.

“We could quite easily have made the kids more like Lord of the Flies or had evil nuns,” he says. “But I like to think I’m a little bit smarter than that. Everyone in that situation is trying to survive, and I like that. There’s much more to discuss about that than black and white, left and right, yes and no, good and evil, you know what I mean? Bad person, good person. That’s lazy writing, lazy thinking.”

After several years in New Norcia, Thornton spent the remainder of his adolescence back in Alice Springs where his mother gave him a job doing the evening shift at CAAMA’s radio station.

Thornton’s 2005 short film Green Bush is inspired by this experience. In it, David Page plays a DJ whose radio station is gradually taken over by the community to whom he is broadcasting. Page’s character is forced to take on the roles his community needs, and the film becomes a celebration of the blessing and curse that in this one no one can ever truly be alone.

As soon as CAAMA offered a studio for video, Thornton’s attention switched to filmmaking. Since none of his classmates were asking him to shoot their films, Thornton began creating his own. Once his talent became obvious, he moved to Sydney to study at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, where he made a series of documentary shorts, along with a 12-minute film, Payback, in 1996. After working as cinematographer on several documentaries and Rachel Perkins’s Radiance, Thornton directed a series of short films – Mimi, Rosalie’s Journey and Green Bush – that grew in length and complexity, before Samson & Delilah pulled him into the ranks of Australia’s great directors.

Thornton’s first feature film follows two 14-year-olds, living in a township near Alice Springs, whose nascent love and search for a place where they can be at peace clashes with social pressures, drug addiction and poverty. Samson & Delilah, which won the Caméra d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and five AFI Awards, was entirely composed of moments Thornton had either witnessed or personally experienced. It was also the first time many audiences had seen an Aboriginal community on screen, putting Thornton in the position of balancing the expectations of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal audiences while also appealing to international viewers.

“It’s incredibly difficult,” he says, nodding, his shoulders slouching a little. “You think you know a little bit about cinema, Western cinema, because predominantly that’s what gets made and [is] what we all see. Then you look at what you understand about your culture and you try to find that balance.

“One of the dangers in editing is that you get to the point where you structurally make the film you need to make and then you start getting scared of your audience. And then you start dumbing down your film because you think they won’t understand it, and suddenly you’re making this watered-down version of the fire, the strength and story that you originally wanted to tell. It’s important to me that I recognise that, so I don’t get caught up in it.”

In Thornton’s films, turning points come in the form of a gunshot, the meeting of gazes or a moment of spiritual transcendence: sharp scenes that allow him to frame, light and bring the environment into union with the protagonist’s emotional state. The New Boy is full of these sequences, many that almost feel invasively close to Reid’s character, as the new boy channels his spiritual energy into a ball of light, a tamed snake or the healing of a wound. Such moments are empowered by the tension that comes from seeing a child alone in an oppressive, foreign environment.

Thornton’s second film, Sweet Country, his most commercially and critically successful, almost acts as a precursor to The New Boy. Set in the 1920s in the Northern Territory, Sweet Country follows Indigenous farmhand Sam and his wife and niece as they try to survive in Australian colonial outposts.

“This film quite easily fits straight after Sweet Country,” Thornton says, referring to a scene in which a building under construction appears to be a gallows but turns out to be a church. “They are companion pieces in a way.”

The spectres of death and religion linger in all his films, but The New Boy delves deepest. Thornton, who powerfully explored his connection to Country in his 2020 documentary series, The Beach, is well acquainted with death. He defines his own spiritual belief as atheism, which, he says, is a very young thing to say.

“I’ve seen plenty of ghosts. Not friends but apparitions of other people’s past lives, in a strange way,” he says solemnly. “Our spirituality is incredibly powerful. Where I come from all religions have a place. Christianity, Catholicism, they all have a place in Indigenous spirituality.” His eyes lift to fix on a woman approaching. “Oh, hi Cate,” he says to Blanchett, as she passes on her way to her own interview. She squeezes his shoulder with warm affection before he returns to the conversation.

“When you watch your friends die, and you’re waiting in bed for them to sit at the edge of your bed as ghosts and say, ‘Hey, it’s pretty cool on the other side, dude’, and it never happens, you become more of an atheist.” He stubs out his rollie. “I think they’ve got more important things to do in some form of afterlife than to reassure you or comfort you. You know what I mean? So, you get more confused as you get older. But” – he raises his finger – “that’s good. And then you die, and then you’ve got more important things to do when you’re dead than to go and tell your friends.” Thornton sighs and laughs. “I don’t know. It’s a strange, beautiful thing that I will hopefully never have an answer to.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2023 as "Golden boy".

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