Desperate to be believed and tormented by memories of sexual abuse as a 12-year-old boarder at a prestigious school, Lyndal's (Sara West) last hope is the justice system. Estranged from her family with only a small window of opportunity to seek counsel, she returns to the country town that has plagued her mind for the first time in 11 years. Lyndal entrusts local lawyer Stephen Roche (Aden Young) who recognises she is at crisis point and sets out to build the case that will, finally, bring so many to account. With the help of his aspiring young associate Jodie and the enigmatic barrister Bob Myers (Jack Thompson), Roche and Lyndal find their way together.
What makes a courtroom drama dramatic? The obvious answer is the verdict: will justice be done? With whodunits, we don’t know what the just result will be and we discover the facts along with the court. But smarter courtroom dramas know that justice isn’t infallible – that simply revealing who committed a crime doesn’t automatically result in justice being served. In those films the drama doesn’t come from who committed the crime, but from whether the justice system really will deliver justice. And in the case of Don’t Tell, that result is far from certain.
Ten years ago, Lyndal (Sara West) was a student at a prestigious Queensland Prep school. There she was repeatedly molested by her house master, Kevin Guy (Gyton Grantley, seen in flashback). Now it’s 2001 and her life is a mess, her dreams of higher education have been shattered and her parents (Susie Porter and Martin Sacks) are only able to watch her life fall apart from a distance. But with Guy dead – he committed suicide, leaving behind a note that stopped just short of being a confession – Lyndal wants to sue the school for not protecting her when they must have known what was happening. Her solicitor, Stephen Roche (Aden Young), has experience in abuse cases, but it’s left him scarred and skittish. His previous client killed herself during the trial; Lyndal’s barrister Bob Myers (Jack Thompson) was defending the church in that case. It’s safe to say the working relationship between Roche and Myers starts out somewhat tense.
Based on Roche’s non-fiction book, this works hard to establish the situation around these cases at the turn of the century. The Anglican church settled claims cheaply, combining a relatively small payout with a cast-iron non-disclosure clause that ensured word would never spread; with an arch-bishop then serving as Governor of Queensland, the political pressure to wrap things up was immense. So while the facts of the abuse are never in doubt – even the church admits as much in court on day one – the drama comes from whether the church can successfully prove it knew nothing about it at the time. Courtroom justice is a ruthless procedure with scant regard for the individual, and director Tori Garrett (directing her first feature film after extensive work in television) hammers home the stresses facing the already brittle Lyndal.
The courtroom sparring is solid, thanks in large part to Jacqueline McKenzie performance as the school’s defending barrister; she’s a competent professional doing the dirty work of a collection of extremely dubious white males, and McKenzie’s performance gets across just the right balance of courtroom professionalism and dislike for the role she’s forced to play. But there isn’t a dud performance in this film, and while the story might lack flair – some of the subplots feel tacked on and the church leaders are unpleasant enough that their comeuppance is all but assured – the cast are strong enough to keep Don’t Tell compelling.
Porter and Sacks convey a decade of pain in a handful of scenes; Thompson’s brash courtroom confidence gives us a man happy to put his considerable skills to good use, while Young’s desperation hammers home just how much his character has at stake (even if the “we’re going to lose the house” subplot feels flimsy). This is Lyndal’s story and West gives a searing performance as a young woman clutching at her last chance to try to make things right. Everyone around her seems flimsy when she’s on screen; driven by bone-deep outrage and bottomless anger, she makes sure we grasp fully what’s at stake. Nothing that happens now can erase Lyndal’s past; the best possible result is that it allows her to move on.
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Watch 'Don't Tell'
Monday 19 October, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies (NOTE: No SBS On Demand catch-up)
Genre: Drama, Crime
Director: Tori Garrett
Starring: Sara West, Rachel Griffiths, Jack Thompson, Aden Young