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New Boy – old rope

by Humphrey McQueen

I came out of the preview saying that I could not remember a worse film and that having wasted three hours of my life getting there and sitting through it, I was not going to waste more in explaining why. The praise lavished on it since tempted me to break my vow of silence. The ABC’s response is only to be expected. No one is game to say that the black emperor has no clothes. Also whitey has filled the vacuum from desacralization with blackfella bullshit, which got a shove forward from Songlines, and the Wisdom of the Elders, although the words of Chief Seattle had been concocted by a non-Indian.

I did dissect the opening in a letter to a friend which I shall cut and paste here, before dealing with a thematic failure. And have added sections for yet more letters. I might construct my total repose correspondent by correspondent.

Let me give the opening sequence. A skinny pre-teen is wrestling with a trooper. He eventually gets him to a choke-hold and kills him. – Thank you, George Floyd. As he runs away, a black trooper approaches on horseback and throws a boomerang at him. It sails into the ether. The next one does what some of them can do and returns to hit the boy on the back of his head. In case you are wondering at the strength of the child and how he might survive a whack that would kill any kangaroo – it turns out that he is a Kadaitcha Man. Even on these few early moments I have a question. If his magical powers let him strangle someone three times his size, and to survive the blow to his head, how did he not know to duck out of its way? From here, it is all downhill.

The line of argument is that Christianity destroys the magic. That moment comes when the nun shoves the boy’s head into a font of water and baptizes him. You might think that the magic could not have been all that powerful if it can’t survive that one ritual. But beyond that is the total misrepresentation of baptism – just one of the endless missteps about both spiritualities. Soon after the boy arrives, the head boy is sent off to work on a farm. As he is leaving, the nun baptizes him. Why has she waited? Only to set up the baptism of the new boy after he has been there for a few months. However, in the meantime, he is baptized in sheep dip to get rid of lice – which seems more likely to drive out black magic than is holy water. The discovery of the lice is as gratuitous as every other effect.

I have no trouble with fantasy. After all, the cinema is the magic lantern. We go into darkened spaces and impossible things happen in front of us, though we no longer fear that the train with break the third dimension into the theatre. Ghosts are in Macbeth and Hamlet, or Inez Baranay’s Ghosts like Us. No problem of suspending disbelief. I had no trouble with the boy’s holding the magic in his hand as if it were a firefly.

However, he is barely ten. He has not been initiated, has not learned the hieratic language of the Men of High Degree – yet it has their full power – until a bucket of Holy Water. The notion that those powers are innate is racist and an insult to the culture the film claims to uphold.

The Christian version is just as off track. We have Romans singing from the Book of Common Prayer. The publicity keeps saying that the Blanchett nun is ‘radical’ – to our eyes she is out of her tree – and who wouldn’t be without a tree in sight. The theme focuses on a crucified Christ and ignores the life-size Virgin in the front of the building, this at a time with worship of Mother Mary was approaching its peak, between Papal immaculate conception and her being assumed body and soul into heaven. Yes, I know, it is a feature film and not a documentary about whitefella bullshit, however, throughout this feature the boys call the second nun, ‘Sister mum’, because, she explains, they don’t have mothers of their own. But they do – her statue is in the yard – but it is ignored.

I could do the above for every scene and location. The orphanage is set in wheat land but Thornton drags in his own experience at New Norcia with grapes for wine, olives and a waterhole. None of which are within a country mile of the main action – all for visual effects and to no other purpose. We also get a fire in the wheat – twice so that he can show off his skills as a cinematographer.

The kids are great as are the adult Aborigines. Blanchett is responsible for its making and I suspect for a good deal of its shallowness.

Thornton’s previous feature was several times better though it had three gaping holes in the script – which is usual with Australian films. Again, there is a pre-teen. An ex-digger who is clearly cracked, wants him to work for him and gives him a pair of boots. The boy is won over. It occurred to me that they would have hurt like hell. We see him walking over stony ground on soles will be like bull’s leather. That carries on to the boy’s returning to one of his own. The madman turns up with a gun to drag him back. The older Aborigine shoots him. Now he is on the run because there is no defence for killing an unsettler.

He and his wife go bush chased by a posse including two coppers. The plot now ignores what we are shown. The whites run into a party of myalls who kill the young copper. This murder seems to have no consequences and is there only as a visual highlight. The older copper is driven into the desert but eventually finds a pool of water into which he plunges. His horse stands idly by as if it were a camel; Thornton can lead it to water, but can’t make it drink even though its life depends on it. Another reality check. The man and his horse could not last 36 hours without water at the best of times. So the chances of either of them getting to the pool are slim, to say the least.

As far as I know no one pointed out these blots at the time. Failure to do so will make the next ones worse. His winning a Palme d’Or for a better-than-average first film, Samson and Delilah, has not been good for his development.

I have gone on more than intended but I trust more than enough to explain my response on the night. There is much more to be said about the gaping holes in New Boy.

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