Don’t Tell follows the the true story of sexual abuse survivor Lyndal, played by Sara West. (Supplied: Fornillo Road)
Set for release on a respectable 80 screens around the country, the Australian courtroom drama Don’t Tell is about a young Toowoomba woman who took the Anglican Church to court in 2001 for the sexual abuse she suffered at one of their schools.
For a case that would send tremors through the Australian political establishment, even shaking the ground beneath the country’s highest chair, the film begins in a modest register: a story of an overworked but idealistic small town lawyer (Aden Young) and his volatile yet determined young client, Lyndal (Sara West).
It unfolds very much as a procedural, with a familiar series of promising leads and dead ends, reluctant witnesses and unexpected breakthroughs.
First time feature director Tori Garrett marshals an impressive, well-drilled cast, including Jack Thompson as Lyndal’s courtroom advocate, Jacqueline McKenzie as his opposite number, and Rachel Griffiths as a counsellor.
Unfortunately, many other secondary characters seem to miss out. The jurors — who are so often the mirrors in which we see our own reflection in courtroom dramas — are barely given a line of dialogue. Even Lyndal’s parents (Susie Porter and Martin Sacks) remain underdrawn.
It’s as if the trio of TV writers who adapted the book written by Young’s real life character Stephen Roche couldn’t quite find the right composition for their fresco of heroes, villains and interested bystanders.
Aden Young is at the centre of the picture for a lot of the time, battling his more cynical, or perhaps realistic, older colleague on the one hand, dealing with Lyndal’s frequent emotional outbursts on the other, all the while trying to be there for his young family, who miss him.
And yet ultimately, it’s not really his story, or at least the film doesn’t give him that, as it shifts focus to Thompson’s glory in court, and ultimately, of course, Sara West’s Lyndal.
Sara West plays sexual abuse survivor Lyndal with vulnerability and defiance. (Supplied: Fornillo Road)
She is, by the way, fantastic in the film. To sustain a performance that’s perched on a knife edge between vulnerability and defiance for a whole film is a credit to her and to Garrett.
But compare Don’t Tell to the Oscar winning Spotlight — another film about a specific set of crimes against children and it’s clear how much more focused and sharply political the American film was.
Don’t Tell is subtle in reminding us that this court case was the beginning of the end for Australia’s governor-general Peter Hollingworth, because of his role as Brisbane’s Anglican archbishop when Lyndal’s abuse occurred.
It stops short of suggesting church indifference is emblematic of a pattern in Australian history where the powerful have continually turned a blind eye to past wrongs.
That parallel is there to be made, however.
The cast includes Susie Porter and Martin Sacks (pictured) as Lyndal’s parents. (Supplied: Fornillo Road)
What Don’t Tell does try to do is depict, though far too late, how cowardice afflicts the human soul. When Lyndal’s former school principal takes the stand, you catch a glimpse, finally, of a man who knows he’s given in to an unforgivable compromise.
Jack Thompson’s final speech articulates what we, the audience already know: that an absence of justice for Lyndal erodes our integrity as a community.
You feel like the film might have found a way to make this point earlier, but instead it plays out in a more black-and-white binary, focusing on characters who seem much less conflicted.
It’s a question perhaps of favouring plot over theme. Spotlight was just as full of procedural detail and characters, but with a better script it somehow cut straight through the layers to the core issues, sometimes visually, with the way it framed shots of suburban houses overlooked by ominous church steeples.
Don’t Tell is full of the procedural detail we’ve come to expect from courtroom dramas. (Supplied: Fornillo Road)
Don’t Tell does conjure some images that speak up powerfully but they’re not quite given the space they need.
A close-up of Lyndal on a train platform with a bottle in her hand as a series of freight carriages rattle through the back of shot for example, is crowded out by dialogue.
A school ballet concert that’s a sudden burst of colour and innocence is over too soon for it to really disrupt the flow of the film with a reminder of what’s at stake in crimes like this.
Don’t Tell is two films, in a way. The film it is and the film it could have been. To its credit, the distance between the two is sometimes not much at all, but it never completely disappears.
The Final Cut is the ABC’s home of film reviews, critiques and analysis. Subscribe now on iTunes, the ABC Radio app or your favourite podcasting app.