Over the years, Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah; Sweet Country) has risen to prominence on the national and worldwide stage as a writer and director.
His works have given the Australian-Aboriginal story a first-hand account and sharp edge. Set in the 1940s, a young Aboriginal boy (newcomer Aswan Reid) is captured in the Outback and is taken across the country to a Catholic monastery for orphaned boys. He is left in the hands of Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett) to do what she can to calm his spirit and reform him to the ways of modern civilisation. As the boy navigates this strange new world, he finds a special connection with Sister Mum (Deborah Mailman) and farm manager George (Wayne Blair), who share his heritage. Within days of arrival, this nine-year-old proves to have unusual spiritual abilities that help him endear himself to the other boys and the staff. Yet, upon the arrival of a specially crafted crucifix of Jesus, the boy begins to develop a special connection with the man on the cross that will change his life and that of all who reside in this remote location of the world.
Warrick Thornton has an eye for capturing the stark, yet beautiful canvas of the Australian landscape he has set his story upon. From the desert terrain to the sweeping farm fields, the countryside becomes a character within the narrative. Then he goes on to get the most out of his cast, who masterfully embody their characters despite having minimal dialogue. All the time utilising the visual elements surrounding them to provide depth to each performance without losing the necessity of the actor’s existence.
Not to say that there isn’t any verbal engagement between the characters, since he has been given some of the best Australian talent to work with for his screenplay. Cate Blanchett is a treasure and manages to find the various evident and hidden layers of Sister Eileen. Blair and Mailman skillfully hold their own with the Academy Award winner and show the tensions of their First Nations roots against the backdrop of the religious oasis they help manage. Still, the film relies on Aswan Reid’s role to carry this production, and the young man proves to be up to the challenge. His physicality makes up for not having much to say in the film as he dives into this role without abandon to great effect.
Reel Dialogue: One advantage of seeing this production at the Sydney Film Festival was to hear Warwick Thornton tell what he hoped to convey through this film. Interestingly, Jesus proves to be more than a supporting cast member for this project. The scenes that intersect between him and the boy prove impossible to look away from while being exceptionally confronting. Thornton shared that the boy fell in love with the Saviour because of his sacrifice and kindness. Yet, when the conventions of religion were thrust upon him, the young man lost his uniquely Aboriginal perspective of the Messiah and his connection with his heritage.
This has to be one of the most challenging aspects of the mission of Christ. How to introduce the Saviour of the world to a new culture without causing those within it to lose what makes their culture unique. This is where those sharing the message must determine the message of the Gospel and what traditions they carry with them as they enter a new culture. It should not deter people from sharing their Christian faith, but Thornton’s film is a cautionary tale as the message is shared worldwide. A challenge to see how the words of Jesus can change the hearts of mankind while enhancing their culture in the process.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8
Article supplied with thanks to City Bible Forum.
All images: Movie stills
About the author: Russ Matthews is a film critic at City Bible Forum and Reel Dialogue. He has a passion for film and sparking spiritual conversations.