The true story of a traumatized young woman who sued the Anglican Church over sexual abuse she suffered as a 12-year-old is dramatized in the quietly powerful Australian feature “Don’t Tell.” Boasting a knockout performance by Sara West as the damaged-but-undeterred victim, and with excellent contributions from a heavyweight local cast including Jack Thompson, Aden Young and Rachel Griffiths, this first feature by director Tori Garrett is a little too restrained to satisfy everyone’s expectations of a high-velocity legal thriller. But its deep compassion and intelligent examination of an especially terrible type of injustice will win the day for many viewers. The film was released locally on May 18 and has the qualities to attract international exposure on various platforms.
“Don’t Tell,” which won the audience award at the Newport Beach Film Festival, is based on the book by Stephen Roche, the lawyer who represented a woman known as Lyndal in the Supreme Court of Toowoomba, Queensland, in 2001. The case led to the Australian government establishing a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Since 2013, thousands of witnesses have come forward with allegations of sexual abuse in schools, churches and other community organizations.
Played with depth and dignity by Young, Roche is introduced as a reluctant participant in the proceedings. After losing a sex abuse case following the suicide of his client, he’s approached by Lyndal (West), an angry and disturbed 22-year-old. After years of drifting around aimlessly and getting into trouble, she has returned to Toowoomba and wants her day in court — no matter what the cost or outcome.
It’s 10 years since Lyndal was repeatedly abused by Kevin Guy (Gyton Grantley), boarding master at prestigious Anglican school Toowoomba Preparatory. Although Guy committed suicide before his trial on indecent assault charges in 1990, he still haunts Lyndal. Carefully filmed and placed flashbacks show Guy’s despicable grooming of Lyndal (very well played by Kiara Freeeman). But the strongest statement about the horror he inflicted comes from adult Lyndal when she asks psychologist Joy Conolly (Rachel Griffiths), “Why can I still feel his breath on me?”
The screenplay by James Greville, Ursula Cleary and Anne Brooksbank is in no hurry to rush into court. A good deal of time is spent showing Lyndal’s difficult reunion with her guilt-ridden mother, Sue (Susie Porter), and taciturn father Tony (Martin Sacks). Meanwhile, Roche gathers evidence. With Guy’s damning suicide note declared inadmissible and the defense admitting that abuse took place, the burning question becomes whether the school and the Anglican Church failed in their duties to care for the girl.
One of the film’s strongest elements is Roche’s initially difficult working relationship with barrister Bob Myers (Jack Thompson, outstanding). A wily old dog who’s seen everything, Myers at first believes Lyndal should settle out of court. And viewers are given a potent reminder of how, until recently, so many cases of abuse were swept aside in the well-founded belief that convictions were nigh impossible to achieve.
Court proceedings are absorbing, if lacking a little in the flashy theatrics usually associated with legal dramas. That said, there’s a particularly riveting sequence in which Lyndal is grilled by defense counsel Joy Dalton (Jacqueline McKenzie). Framed in extreme close-up and showing no emotion, Lyndal spells out exactly what happened to her as a 12-year-old, and how it’s impacted her life.
Aside from a few instances where Roche’s life as a dedicated husband and father are wedged in a little awkwardly, “Don’t Tell” stays firmly on-track. With West’s magnetic performance and Garrett’s sensitive direction leading the way, the film achieves its crucial goal of turning uncomfortable subject matter into emotionally rewarding viewing.
Crisply filmed by top local DP Mark Wareham (“Jasper Jones,” “Clubland”) and nicely scored by Bryony Marks (“Berlin Syndrome”), “Don’t Tell” is a polished but deliberately never glossy looking production.