This is a significant and important Australian film. It should be seen by all Australians.
The subject, which is most disturbing but which has become part of our lives, part of our consciousness, is institutional sexual abuse. The survivor of the abuse here is a young girl. So many of the stories, especially those from the Royal Commission, are of the abuse of boys, are fewer about girls. So many of the witnesses to the Royal Commission told stories of institutional church abuse. While Catholic stories have been told in the Oscar-winning Spotlight and the television miniseries Devil’s Playground (2014), the church in the spotlight here is the Anglican church, the church in Queensland.
The specific setting is in the Queensland city of Toowoomba. The school is the Anglican School for girls, Toowoomba Prep. The time is 1990. There is a civil trial which is at the core of this film which took place in 2001.
The film has been sensitively directed by Tori Garrett. The central character of the film is Lyndal, abused when she was 11 in 1990, at the centre of the case in 2001. She is played extraordinarily persuasive solely by Sarah West, an angry young woman whose life has been severely damaged, whose emotional growth was stunted, educational opportunities lost, experiences of running away from home, alcohol and drug addiction, and the carrying of the burden of her secret.
The screenplay is based on the book by Lyndal’s solicitor, Stephen Roche, he played so well by Aden Young, the Toowoomba lawyer, with a family, a daughter the same age as Lyndal when she was abused. The film opens with his handling the case of a victim, not a survivor because she hangs herself during the proceedings, placing a burden on Roche, emotionally and, of concern to his wife, financially.
Lyndal is having therapy from a counsellor, Joy Connolly, played by Rachel Griffiths. They approach Stephen Roche – but, in the mentality of the time, especially for churches, the expectation is of a financial settlement with confidentiality clauses. Lyndal rejects this and, despite the wariness of the chief barrister, Bob Myers (Jack Thompson at his best), a civil hearing goes ahead in Toowoomba with a very strong-minded lawyer, Dalton (Jacqueline McKenzie at her best) defending the church’s interests, sharing with Stephen Roche the cross examination of a range of witnesses, school staff, Joy Connolly, the previous principal.
The film reminds audiences that in 1990, for most Australians, this kind of abuse was unthinkable. There is a lot of talk about the child and imagination, making up stories… Parents are reluctant to believe the stories or, if they do, very reluctant for them to be made public, especially in court.
Audiences may remember the 2003 resignation of Archbishop Peter Hollingworth as Governor General of Australia. Some of the reasons for his resignation include his handling of this case when he was Archbishop of Brisbane. He is seen opening a new wing at the school, the emphasis on Toowoomba Prep is a Christian school with Christian values. But there are also sequences, parallel with many meetings that have gone on over the decades with school boards, church councils of all denominations, discussing limits of financial payments, a wariness of going to court, discussing protecting the reputation of school and church and individuals, many defending the abuser as a person of good character and reliable work in the school.
One of the key factors in this case is that the abuser, Kevin Guy, committed suicide, leaving a suicide note naming number of girls. Eventually, the church admitted Kevin Guy’s guilt (and so his suicide note was deemed inadmissible).
At times audiences will find it difficult to identify with Lyndal, her anger, her sullen behaviour, trying to understand and appreciate it. With the flashbacks, which dramatises what Lyndal is remembering during the hearings, and the telling of her story, the audience will come to appreciate much better experience as a little girl (Kiara Freeman), damaged girl and the consequences. At some moments, the flashback memories are very disturbing. But, this is the kind of narrative drama that really brings home some of the realities of the abuse experience.
There have been many newspaper reports and articles, radio interviews, television coverage and interviews, items on social media, but the power of the theatrical and cinema drama can enable an audience to be drawn into the story, to empathise with the characters, to feel appreciate their experiences.
The end of the film has, statements about the characters we have seen and Lyndal’s subsequent history, there is also the terrible reminder that abusers threaten impressionable children that they are not to tell anyone, that this is their secret, or that if they do reveal it, something terrible will final caption happen before the credits says to the survivor: Don’t Listen.
A deeply thoughtful examination of the persistence of truth and the way the legal system puts the victim on trial in this moving and impeccably cast drama.
While 2015’s Oscar winning Spotlight explored the journalistic investigation into child sex abuse in the Boston area by numerous Roman Catholic priests, Australia’s own disgraces had only recently been brought to light. The 2013 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard hundreds of tales of systemic cover ups of the crimes of child abusers.
Over a decade before, lawyer Stephen Roche represented a young woman who was abused while in the care of an Anglican preparatory school. This landmark case formed the basis of his subsequent book, and the inspiration for director Tori Garrett’s debut feature DON’T TELL. Following the suicide death of a former client, Roche (Aden Young) is initially reluctant to involve himself in the case of the troubled Lyndal (Sara West), but together they doggedly take on the Church in a quest for justice.
Earnestly told, the strength of DON’T TELL is in its unwavering commitment to the notion of truth. A few bits of legal terminology notwithstanding, the story is told through the accurate lens of a legal procedural. Like an extended episode of Law & Order: SVU, albeit told in a far less formulaic manner, the reality of the adversarial system and unreliable witnesses play an important role in the pursuit of justice. Yet the structure of the film never allows the Anglican Church’s defence barrister (Jacqueline McKenzie) to become the villain of the piece, with that role falling on the administrators of Lyndal’s school and perhaps more broadly on the system at large.
Even with this courtroom setting, a result of the story being structured around a lawyer’s recollections, Garrett’s film allows plenty of opportunities for her leads to explore their characters. West, seen recently in episodes of Ash Vs Evil Dead, gives an award-worthy performance of the damaged Lyndal, equal parts fragile and fiery. The younger Lyndal, played at age 12 by Kiara Freeman, gets the benefit of cinematographer Mark Wareham’s (Jasper Jones) gorgeous shots of the Queensland countryside during wistful flashbacks. Aden Young’s understated performance brings real pathos to the characterisation, and works as a wonderful contrast to Jack Thompson’s warmly cantankerous barrister.
Other more subtle performances speak volumes as to why the culture of silence persisted for so long. Take Lyndal’s father, for example, who exhibits a taciturn guilt through his country-bloke barrier that is at the heart of a nation’s machismo. Her mother (the always wonderful Susie Porter) remained unaware of the clues Lyndal was sending out as a child. Yet these all form a kind of guidebook for noticing signs of abuse, the kind that can be easily misunderstood.
Which is where DON’T TELL becomes more than a simple narrative, and instead serves as a missive for standing up for those who slip through the cracks of an often inadequate system. Punctuated by the Missy Higgins song “Torchlight,” in which she advises “If anybody tells you not to tell, don’t listen,” it becomes an important film in helping victims understand their rights, and hopefully gives them additional strength to come forward and confront the criminals who abused them.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting