Set and shot (partly at least) on location in Toowoomba, this powerful Australian drama tracks the real-life legal proceedings that proved the catalyst for the downfall of Governor-General Peter Hollingworth and the establishment of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Adapted from the non-fiction book by lawyer Stephen Roche, who is played by Aden Young (Black Robe, Beneath Hill 60) in the film, this first feature from first-time feature director Tori Garrett effectively tells the harrowing story of Lyndal (Sara West), an individual fighting for justice against an organisation that is hell bent on denying any culpability for the abuse that Lyndal suffered at the hands of a housemaster at Toowoomba Preparatory School in 1990. Despite the fact that the perpetrator Kevin Guy is dead, Lyndal is haunted by the abuse to which she was subjected and her subsequent reliance on drugs as a coping mechanism has fractured her relationship with her parents (Susie Porter and Martin Sacks).
Objectivity is difficult in light of such heinous behaviour from the school and Anglican Church in denying the allegation and trying to discredit Lyndal, but Garrett and the screenwriters (Anne Brooksbank, Ursula Cleary, James Greville) have done a good job in resisting the urge to launch an all-out assault, allowing the actions and attitudes of the church hierarchy to demonstrate their callous disregard for Lyndal and other students who suffered similar indignities during their time at the school. Garrett captures how the legal system is an environment devoid of emotion and the courtroom scenes are lacking the histrionics and bluster that are typical of legal dramas out of Hollywood, and that’s not a bad thing at all. However, that is not to suggest that these scenes lack power, particularly with a couple of Aussie screen legends in Jack Thompson and Jacqueline McKenzie locking horns as the opposing barristers. Thompson’s Bob Myers is the level-headed pragmatist who tempers Roche’s emotional idealism, while Mackenzie is tasked with trying to mitigate the damage to the church, a task that becomes more difficult as the level of their complicity is revealed, forcing Hollingworth, who was the Anglican Archbishop at the time of the assaults and was aware of the accusations against Guy, to step aside as Governor-General. It is always great to see the likes of Thompson and McKenzie back on screen, with Rachel Griffiths also featuring as Lyndal’s psychiatrist.
Fabulous on television in Rectify, Young is terrific here as well as Roche, a man seemingly prepared to sacrifice everything in the interests of securing justice for his client. However, it is West who shines brightest as the damaged yet determined Lyndal, a young woman who has nothing left to lose. With better material at her disposal than her previous outing in Bad Girl, West delivers a dynamic performance as a young woman struggling to cope with the psychological damage inflicted upon her and, in this instance, we understand what drives her characters reckless behaviours. There are some strong performances amongst the supporting cast as well, including Robert Taylor (The Matrix, Kong: Skull Island) as the school principal Robert Brewster, whose indifference and inaction enabled Guy to prey on students. In a particularly powerful moment in the witness stand, Brewster acknowledges his culpability for the first time. Gyton Grantley takes on the unenviable role of Guy, a truly despicable individual who abused his position of trust to prey on young girls with impunity for several years before taking his own life.
Narratively, there are no real surprises in store because the events have been widely documented through media coverage of the proceedings and the political machinations that followed, which include the introduction of the Blue Card monitoring system for people working with children and, of course, the Royal Commission that has subsequently (and not surprisingly) uncovered widespread abuse in various schools and institutions across the country. Whilst Don’t Tell serves as a damning indictment of the way in which young people have been subjected to mistreatment at the hands of those who are supposed to protect them, the film focuses (necessarily) on one particular case and we need to remember that there have been hundreds – maybe thousands – more children subjected to similar abuse whose stories might never be told. This is an important story about a particularly disturbing course of events in Australia’s history but Garrett, whose background is in television, handles the sensitivity of the material very well and extracts great performances from a stellar cast which, combined with crisp cinematography from Mark Wareham (Jasper Jones) makes this a highly accomplished film that is uncomfortable viewing at times but emerges as an emotionally rewarding piece of cinema.