Courtroom drama revisits Toowoomba child abuse case

Don’t Tell

Directed by Tori Garrett

Written by Anne Brooksbank, Ursula Cleary, James Greville, based on a book by Stephen Roche

108 minutes, rated M

4 stars


Child abuse. Neither film-makers nor audiences rush toward it as a subject. No-one likes talking about it, let alone watching a depiction. Funding bodies think twice, so the rare film that gets made becomes remarkable.

Don’t Tell sails past all obstacles, as if it just had to be made. When someone imbues their work with such urgency, such belief, audiences can feel it and they will respect it. That’s why I think this small Australian film has a chance to work at the box office, even with this subject. It’s a compelling and heartfelt piece of work; it tells an appalling story with clear eyes and a degree of courage.

Making it in as a courtroom drama helps. It’s based on a real and important case in Toowoomba in 2001. A young woman, troubled by the abuse she suffered at the posh Toowoomba Preparatory School ten years earlier, brought a civil case against the school and the Anglican church. This is one of the cases that led to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, now concluding. We now have thousands of individual testimonies, a national tragedy, rather than just this one story, but that makes this the right time for one powerful story.

Stephen Roche, the solicitor in the Toowoomba case, wrote a book, which is the basis of the film. Aden Young plays him here superbly as a decent man, pursuing an unpopular case. One of his clients has committed suicide rather than go through the ordeal of a trial, so he’s reluctant. When therapist Joy Conolly (Rachel Griffiths) asks him to take the case of one of her patients, he hesitates. It’s right on the time limit for a case to be brought, and the woman is a nightmare. Lyndal (Sara West) has a history of drug and alcohol abuse. She disappeared from home for several years and was arrested several times in New South Wales, and she has an explosive temper. Her parents, Sue and Tony (Susie Porter and Martin Sacks) are stricken at the thought of what the case might mean for their daughter, and perhaps, for themselves. They are quiet farming people.

Bob Myers (Jack Thompson, back in robes), the barrister Roche will have to brief, thinks she’ll make a terrible witness. Roche already dislikes Myers, but he knows he’s right. The town’s sympathies will be with the school and the church. Lyndal remembers the words of the teacher who abused her, Kevin Guy (Gyton Grantley): Don’t tell, because no-one will believe you anyway. Jacqueline McKenzie plays Jean Dalton, barrister for the other side, and Robert Taylor is the headmaster who protected his teacher’s reputation when the first allegations came out ten years earlier. Kim Knuckey plays Archbishop Peter Hollingworth, who was in charge of the Brisbane diocese at the time. Lyndal’s case is one of the reasons he would later resign as Governor-General.

In terms of story-telling, the film has two distinct moods: the sun-drenched landscape, bathed in daylight, where it seems hard to imagine that terrible things happen in a prosperous, upright country town; and the darkness and secrecy of night, where most of the re-enactment scenes occur. These are the film’s most controversial decision. Kiara Freeman does a good job playing Lyndal aged 12 and a half, but the re-enactments are hard to watch – not just because we see the teacher Mr Guy cuddling Lyndal in public. We also see her meeting him late at night in the common room, where the abuse takes place. Director Tori Garrett takes us close to the flame here. I can understand why – she wants us to see that the signs were there for anyone who had their eyes open – but the common room scenes had no witnesses. The film does not depict the abuse, just everything leading up to it, perhaps as a way of challenging us: don’t look away, like everyone else did.

Like Spotlight, the Boston Globe story that won Best Picture two years ago, the power here resides in staying true to course. The film-makers must keep their heads amidst this exploding story, or it will become shrill. It’s Garrett’s feature debut, after a long apprenticeship in TV both here and in the UK, and she does it with great resolve. That shows her faith in the story’s power. It’s an enraging film, but that is what it should be.