Cate Blanchett Is A Renegade Nun In Warwick Thornton’s Exploration Of Faith [Cannes] 

May 25, 2023

Warwick Thornton is no stranger to La Croisette. His debut feature, “Samson and Delilah,” won the Camera d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where his latest feature, “The New Boy,” just had its premiere. 
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“The New Boy” never gives its protagonist, the titular New Boy, a name. Played by newcomer Aswan Reid, New Boy speaks only a few words throughout the film as he is picked up from the desert and put in the care of a remote Catholic orphanage run by Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett), with a two-person staff, including Sister Mum (Deborah Mailman) and handyman George (Wayne Blair). Set in 1940s Australia during World War II, conflict is raging but far away. 
Reid makes an impressive debut, from the opening shot of him strangling an adult soldier to his naive, earnest offerings of kindness to the boys at the orphanage. The nuns do not attempt to change his ways, like eating stew with his hands or refusing to wear a shirt and shoes. Each of the nunnery’s scant employees is deeply caring and nurturing towards the boys in their care, be that through patience or marmalade sandwiches. At night, the Boy sleeps under – not on – the bed and plays with the magical spark that he can make appear with his fingers. Reid, with his hard stare and soft tiptoeing, carries the weight of a film that doesn’t quite know where to go. 
Through this outsider orphan, we settle into the placid routine of the nunnery. They harvest olives. They clean. They pray. They pretend their priest, Dom Peter, isn’t dead so they can avoid getting another one sent in. You know, nun stuff. 
Cate Blanchett’s Sister Eileen is a slippery thing. Tender and caring with the children, devoted to her faith, she also enjoys the earthly pleasures of wine and is engaging in some light fraud by falsifying letters to her superiors pretending to be Dom Peter. Thornton skips between devoted seriousness and random flights of slapstick comedy, with the nuns pulling a “Weekend At Bernie’s” stint to receive a package that arrives for the deceased priest, complete with Blanchett yelling “dirty little slut” over and over again. Sister Eileen struggles with balancing these acts of rebellion against the Church with her own devotion, further tested by the Boy’s connection to the Jesus statue the nunnery receives. 
It’s this messy seesaw between magical spirituality and Catholicism that makes “The New Boy,” ultimately, a confused mess. We have no reason to disbelief The Boy’s connection to Christ. The statue comes alive only for him – winking, smiling, bleeding – and the same tenderness he displayed for his fellow orphans he shows to Jesus, bringing him down from the cross and feeding him marmalade sandwiches. His chummy relationship with Christ confuses Sister Eileen’s own faith. But that’s about all we get. “The New Boy” tiptoes around spirituality and magic without daring to commit to either. 
Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s score do their best to give “The New Boy” a sense of spiritual profundity, but it’s not quite enough to give meaning to a story that ends up meandering its way to a flabby conclusion. The film never returns to the strength of its opening scene, and by the end, the spark is gone. [C]
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