Don’t Tell is a powerfully moving account, based in truth, of the fight for justice of a young woman who was sexually abused while in the care of an Anglican school in Toowoomba.
Based on lawyer Stephen Roche’s book on a case he took on in the early 2000s, Don’t Tell is an impressive debut from director Tori Garrett, who has managed to avoid the pitfalls that so often make adaptations to screen problematic. There is nothing extraneous here. The screenplay is tight, and the characters are well-rounded and convincingly played.
Rising star Sara West in the lead role as the volatile Lyndal is the standout in a talented cast (it’s gratifying to see West in a film and part worthy of her after the abysmal Bad Girl).
Subjected to sex abuse while attending an Anglican school in Toowoomba, Lyndal, now a self-destructive and damaged young woman, approaches lawyer Roche (Aden Young) about seeking justice in court. He is initially reluctant after the suicide of a previous sex abuse client, but after hearing her out feels compelled to assist. Joining forces with pragmatic gentleman barrister Bob Myers (Jack Thompson – in fine form), the idealistic Roche goes into battle for Lyndal against sharp defending barrister Jean Dalton (Jacqueline McKenzie) and her team, who are representing the Anglican Church.
While the court drama unfolds in familiar fashion, it is saved from cliché by a sense of authenticity, no doubt informed by the legally authoritative source material. The legal procedural takes up the bulk of the film, but is interspersed with flashbacks to Lyndal’s school days and her grooming and abuse by a predatory boarding master (Gyton Grantley). There is also some backgrounding of her life on her family’s farm outside Toowoomba that ups the emotional stakes, affording some personal insights into the suffering Lyndal’s abuser has wreaked on her and her parents (Susie Porter and Martin Sacks). We care about Lyndal and her fight for justice. And we identify and sympathise with her as she struggles with the adversarial nature of the court environment.
It would be most unfortunate if public weariness with the media-saturated topic of child sexual abuse cases brought against the Church results in indifference to Don’t Tell, because this is a terrific film that deserves to be seen. It derives great emotional power from placing the focus on the victim and the human aspects of the case, rather than legalities and the investigative background. I am not aware of any other recent film on Church child sex abuse that has taken this angle.
2015’s Oscar winning Spotlight, for example, tracked the investigative journalism that exposed numerous child sex offences by Roman Catholic priests in Boston. The journalists took centre stage, while the victims’ roles were peripheral. Don’t Tell is a very different film, putting Lyndal front and centre and perhaps lending strength to others who have suffered similarly to take her lead.
The film concludes with a beautiful and achingly poignant image that articulates Lyndal’s sense of resolution far better than any words could do. Fittingly, the Missy Higgins song Torchlight takes the film home, with the haunting lyrics “if anybody tells you not to tell, don’t listen” echoing through the credit roll.
Don’t Tell features: Sara West, Aden Young, Jack Thompson, Jacqueline McKenzie, Rachel Griffiths, Susie Porter, Martin Sacks, Gyton Grantley
Director: Tori Garrett
Writers: Screenplay by Anne Brooksbank, Ursula Cleary & James Greville (based on the book by Stephen Roche)
Runtime: 110 min
Australian release date: Don’t Tell in cinemas from 18 May.
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