MWFF

Critics Lab 2018

Don't Tell: Do See

By Ruby Mountford

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It was inevitable we would see a film about the four-year slog-of-horror that was Australia’s infamous Royal Commission into child abuse. Don’t Tell, the feature debut of director Tori Garrett, came out just eight months before the Commission closed – a well-intentioned rallying cry against the silencing of victims by powerful institutions.

Based on lawyer Stephen Roche’s published memoir, Don’t Tell revolves around sexual abuse survivor Lyndal  (Sara West) and the landmark 2001 civil litigation case she brought against the Anglican Church’s Toowoomba Preparatory School.  

After suffering hallucinations brought on by severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Lyndal returns to her parents’ farm after several years estranged. With the help of Roche (Aden Young), she seeks justice from the school that failed to protect her from her boarding master, Kevin Guy (Gyton Grantley).

A cast of heavyweight actors, including Rachel Griffiths as Lyndal’s compassionate psychologist and Jack Thompson as a battle-hardened barrister carry Don’t Tell, but a lack of cinematographic creativity and an overly stylised script prevents the film from transcending the real-life subject matter to stand on its own. 

Viewers of Australian courtroom drama may find the storytelling quickly starts to feel familiar. While depicting true events makes predictability hard to avoid, in this case the conventional cinematography is a bigger culprit. Sweeping shots of Queensland’s bone dry shrubland are picturesque, but once the action moves to court, the cuts between close-ups and wider angles quickly become formulaic.  

At times, the legal team’s banter feels unrealistically polished, trading lines that would sound more at home in Law and Order: SVU than a court room in Queensland. It is a credit to editor Peter Carrodus’ excellent sense of pacing, and to the strength of the cast that this was a only ever a minor distraction.

West’s gut-punching portrayal of the furious and fragile Lyndal makes it easy to forgive Don’t Tell for playing it technically safe. The audience can’t help but empathise with her, investing in her battle against the Prep school’s legal team and bristling with outrage at their attempts to disparage her character.

The sheer, monstrous scale of the Royal Commission left little room for individual victims to be heard. Don’t Tell puts the focus back on the survivor, on Lyndal and the people who helped her be heard over a decade before Australia was ready to listen. 

Whitney Monaghan