Has any other matter received such persistent and disturbing attention in media reportage these days as the sexual abuse of children in schools, most commonly boarding schools? Two equally repulsive aspects of this phenomenon are the lasting emotional and psychological scarring that seems to become the lot of the victims as well as the urge of the institutions at fault to cover up offences in order to preserve their public image. Now we have an admirable Australian film that takes on this difficult subject. Based on a real-life case, Tori Garrett’s feature debut, Don’t Tell (2017), takes a serious theme and treats it with impressive intelligence and fair-mindedness. This is a film that deserves much more attention than it seems to have received. And I don’t want to make this sound merely polemical: it is, as well, a very compelling piece of filmmaking.
Don’t Tell opens with a shot of a pair of female legs making their way up a rural hillside until their owner reaches the haystack she wants to sit on. In a way, this visual recalls the moving near-symmetry employed by John Ford in his masterwork The Searchers (1956), with Garrett likewise choosing to close her film using a paralleled image. In these opening moments, the young woman (Sara West) perched on the haystack challenges, ‘Okay, God, it’s Lyndal. I’m ready.’ For what, we wonder – and we are about to find out. The film’s other protagonist, lawyer Stephen Roche (Aden Young), is introduced with similar vividness: knocking loudly on a house door, he is clearly flustered and will be, within a few minutes, appalled when he finds a different young woman – one whom he was defending – has hanged herself. Lyndal may be ‘ready’, but Stephen may need time to decide whether he can take on another such case.
The setting is Toowoomba, Queensland, in 2001; a case has been brought to trial eleven years after a popular male teacher, Kevin Guy (Gyton Grantley), sexually abused the twelve-year-old Lyndal (played as a child by Kiara Freeman) when she was a student at Toowoomba Prep, an Anglican boarding school. In flashbacks to 1990, Kevin is revealed as having a free-and-easy rapport with the girls in his care, but, with Lyndal, it has gone beyond this. He orders her to come to his living quarters late at night; there, he proceeds to abuse her sexually. He forbids her to tell anyone about what has occurred, and she cannot even bring herself to tell her parents, who, not understanding her traumatic experience, refuse to let her leave the school. They are modest farming people who have taken pride both in their daughter’s attendance at the prestigious institution and in her aspirations, which include pursuing a university course.
Working with a screenplay by Anne Brooksbank, Ursula Cleary and James Greville – which is itself derived from Roche’s own book of the same name, in which he gives a firsthand account of the case – Garrett has made a cleverly constructed drama that eschews some of the more predictably melodramatic possibilities for cinematic treatments of the subject. As we see in her film, the school refuses to accept responsibility for Kevin’s actions, and its headmaster, Robert Brewster (Robert Taylor), and counsel talk in terms of ‘settlement’. By this, they mean paying off – with a modest A$40,000 – the defendant to stall legal action, but Lyndal makes it clear she is not interested in this, even when her mother says that sum would pay the deposit on a flat. It becomes clear that ‘settlement’ means, for the school, keeping Kevin’s disgraceful conduct secret from public awareness, and has nothing to do with Lyndal’s peace of mind. His eventual suicide is also kept as far away from external scrutiny as possible, and the school’s representatives persistently deny malpractice.For a detailed account of the real-world case, see Amanda Gearing, ‘Truth of Child Sexual Abuse Rises to Surface in Film Don’t Tell’, The Australian, 13 May 2017, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/inquirer/truth-of-child-sexual-abuse-rises-to-surface-in-film-dont-tell/news-story/0284a3395f522153f5c90e874b7c3e0a>, accessed 1 August 2017.
Lyndal’s own life over the intervening decade turns her from a sweet-tempered child into a stroppy, belligerent, foul-mouthed 22-year-old. She drinks heavily, swigging vodka from a bottle; has been arrested once for stealing a car, when she was fifteen; and has made life very difficult for her parents, Sue (Susie Porter) and Tony (Martin Sacks). Tony especially has had a hard time coming to terms with the awful events and their painful aftermath.
These plot elements – the abuse, its effects on Lyndal’s life, Kevin’s suicide and the school’s cover-up efforts, and Stephen’s decision to take on the case – provide the film’s starting point. But Garrett has strengthened Don’t Tell’s narrative texture through the way she depicts the conflicts that litter the path to the final courtroom victory for moral right. The most obvious of these conflicts are those afflicting Lyndal, of course, and Stephen, but there are still others that contribute to making Don’t Tell such an absorbing experience.
For Lyndal, the life she should have enjoyed as a teenager has been denied her. Her parents, decent and devoted as they are, have not been able to help because they haven’t been privy to the source of her ongoing pain. She has had psychological support from Joy Conolly (Rachel Griffiths, in a performance of persuasive sympathy and understanding), who, in a telling scene, drives to Lyndal’s rescue when her parents fail to respond to her plea for help when a man approaches her at a phone booth. The film’s dramatic power derives, in large part, from a total lack of softening when it comes to Lyndal’s predicament: she may have been a nice little girl, but she is now very hard to like, however much she deserves pity – and West plays her with uncompromising, steely conviction.
As for Stephen, he is ambivalent about taking on this case, his previous experience of a similar one having failed so dramatically. His wife, Wendy (Leeanna Walsman), is concerned about the strain this may impose on him, and there is also a family problem concerning his son Tom (Jayden Caulfield), who has been involved in a cheating episode at his school. Adding to Stephen’s tensions is the fact that he has had an earlier clash with barrister Bob Myers (Jack Thompson), who is enlisted to handle the case. When Stephen discusses possible courses of action with Lyndal, she asks, ‘What’s he like, the barrister?’ to which Stephen replies, ‘He’s clever, shrewd – and I can’t stand the prick.’ In some ways, Stephen’s emotional tensions are only slightly less important to the film’s drama than Lyndal’s. Bob, by contrast – and this is the sort of detail that gives the film its texture – seems untroubled by personal matters. He warns Lyndal, who lashed out verbally during a preliminary hearing, against giving way to anger in court; to this, she responds: ‘Anger is the only thing that’s keeping me going.’
Of course, audience sympathies are intended to lie with Lyndal, especially in light of the harm that has been done to her, but Don’t Tell also allows the school – and the Anglican Church, which runs it – to at least make some sort of case for its institutional good name. There are scenes that show happy youngsters at play in the school’s grounds, as if to suggest that innocence, however much it has been betrayed by Kevin’s abuse of Lyndal, can still make itself felt. The accounts given by the headmaster of Kevin’s popularity among students made me think of the great novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett, who once wrote: ‘The wrong is never the only thing a wrong-doer has done.’2 This is not, in any way, to exonerate the real-life Kevin Guy from the charges against him, but rather to draw attention to this wise film’s refusal of easy black-and-white distinctions. Further evidence of conflict is uncovered when Stephen sets about trying to interview other contemporaries from Lyndal’s time at the school, both classmates and teachers. For some of them, the whole matter is too painful for them to want to be involved in the court case; the father of one girl even slams the door in Stephen’s face.
As well as these conflicts, which show how the truth can be nudged aside because of its potential to cause pain or due to self-protection, the film also sketches vividly the different ways in which families operate, making quiet but telling comments on their positions in society and their degrees of internal openness. A couple of brief scenes depict Sue hemming a skirt for young Lyndal while the child stands on a stool, or getting on with the ironing while a grumpy, graceless Lyndal turns up her nose at the scrambled eggs her mother has made her for breakfast. In Stephen’s somewhat-upmarket home, we see a salient moment when, the kids having left the table, Wendy comes to sit comfortably near him – whereupon he abruptly leaves, a sign that he’s not up to their usual camaraderie.
Mediation having failed, the court case is obviously where the film’s drama is heading and, like the rest of Don’t Tell, this plot development avoids sensationalism in favour of coming to intelligent grips with human responses, attitudes and emotions. Certain narrative elements are key during this build-up, including Kevin’s suicide note, on which other girls’ names are written, and an extraordinary school-council meeting in which the official attitude to the abuse is clarified. However, our interest remains largely in the very well handled court scene, which reveals what is at stake for each of the characters during the proceedings.
For instance, Jean Dalton (Jacqueline McKenzie), the barrister hired by the school, tries to dismiss the suicide note as ‘petrol on a flame’ and hectors Joy by accusing her of having replaced her role as Lyndal’s therapist with that of advocate. Bob and Jean, appearing for opposing sides, are clearly at odds from the start, and the former berates the latter with the comment, ‘We are trying to make [the school] accountable for the pain they have caused the victim.’ Following this, Jean encounters a newspaper article that she fears will influence the jury. Don’t Tell may seem to be presenting her as a stony-faced pursuer not so much of truth as of a case, but in a moment near the ending, when she has lost, the film allows her the grace to shake Lyndal’s hand and wish her well for the future. What is implied is that, however unsympathetic an image she has projected, she is essentially a professional who has been carrying out what was, for her, a designated task.
Another example of the film’s measured approach is Bob’s cross-questioning of headmaster Robert, who, in a very moving few moments, almost breaks under the strain. Bob pushes him to admit, ‘In my heart of hearts, I knew [Kevin] was guilty.’ Enacted largely in close-up, Taylor’s performance convincingly finds some grounds for the audience to pity this man who has been so bent on preserving the school’s reputation that he has ignored the reality of the threats to it. It is a touching and utterly convincing image of a man shaken to his roots.
The quality of the acting throughout the film is, for the most part, beyond praise. West grapples brilliantly with the turbulence and aggressiveness of Lyndal, and Young – a veteran of over forty credits since his memorable debut in Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe (1991) – has excelled himself here. As Stephen, he registers all the initial reluctance, the ensuing perseverance, the frustrations of the case, as well as his function as family man – and one with a professional name at stake – with unshowy conviction.
These two protagonists have their moments of reconciliation at the end. Archbishop Hollingworth (Kim Knuckey) resigns following the outcome of the case, and Stephen and son Tom, with whom he has had some difficult moments, are seen watching the news of the resignation on television. This sense of rapport recalls, too, that earlier episode in which Tom tells his father, ‘I’m glad you’re doing this’ – an affirmation that means something to Stephen. As for Lyndal, the final image, as suggested above, reveals those sturdy limbs making their way up the same slope to the haystack; there, in an inspired touch, she appears to be joined by her younger self, whom she enfolds in her arms. It works beautifully as a hint of incipient serenity, a notion fuelled by the fall of rain on the dry landscape.
Don’t Tell is a film that should be noticed. Not so many Australian films take on board such important and controversial subject matter, let alone deal with it so powerfully and compassionately.
|1||For a detailed account of the real-world case, see Amanda Gearing, ‘Truth of Child Sexual Abuse Rises to Surface in Film Don’t Tell’, The Australian, 13 May 2017, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/inquirer/truth-of-child-sexual-abuse-rises-to-surface-in-film-dont-tell/news-story/0284a3395f522153f5c90e874b7c3e0a>, accessed 1 August 2017.|