Film Review: Don’t Tell (Australia, 2017) doesn’t serve its source material justice

May I set the scene? On a farm in Queensland, 22-year- old Lyndall (Sara West) is talking to lawyer Stephen Roche (Aden Young) about her willingness to face the might of the Anglican Church in court over the abuse she suffered in boarding school. She asks about Bob Myers (Jack Thompson), the barrister who would represent her in court. With a thousand-yard squint, Stephen lists the barrister’s many qualities, pauses, then calls him a prick. One person at the back of the theatre laughs. Apparently, they didn’t see it coming.

Actually, Bob doesn’t seem like much of a prick. He doesn’t seem like much of anything, except for someone who is constantly telling Stephen that he’s crazy, and therefore making him the trailblazer who was right all along. Thompson, a talented actor, takes his cue from the script, and delivers a decidedly lazy performance. Ditto for a litany of talented actors – among them Rachel Griffiths, Susie Porter, Gyton Grantley – each one a caricature of a therapist, or parent, or paedophile.

As Stephen (who tells us he grew up on a milk farm), Canadian Aden Young seems to channel Sam Neill, who doesn’t even sound like a New Zealander. As Lyndall, Sara West does self-destructive victim with a hefty swig from a bottle of cheap vodka, and the occasional single tear. Neither is very convincing.

Speaking of single tears – a tired signpost for despair or catharsis, doesn’t matter which – I counted three, from three different characters. Something else for director Tori Garrett to fall back on? The slow-motion montage. People do menial things, in slow motion, because it looks cinematic and is a convenient transition. Throw in some hip, twangy violin music, and you have yourself an instant heart-wrenching drama that’s distinctly Australian.

If it please the court, some more clichés: Lawyer who is just crazy enough to take the case? Tick. Clunky exposition with mother and photo album? Tick. Client who, quote, doesn’t want the church’s effin’ money? Tick. Waiting for someone to burst through those doors at the back of the courtroom? Tick. Objection, your Honour: how is a courtroom drama supposed to function without any of these things? Overruled: if it’s a good, engaging courtroom drama, it doesn’t have to have any of them.

Before I rest my case, I should just concede that there are a couple of scenes that are distinctively creative. One is at the very beginning, with Lyndall walking away from a ferociously self-destructive situation. It stands out because the style, the sound and the central performance actually serve the narrative. The other is at the very end. While the image is a bit schmaltzy, it does inventively visualize the central thematic concerns of its subject.

This is a true story. A woman courageously took an Anglican school to court, leading to a watershed moment for child abuse victims in this country, not to mention forcing a Governor General to resign. Now it’s hardly a tragedy that real events and people are reduced to some lazy tropes for what is, after all, just a movie. I would say it’s a shame, though, that the story didn’t get the justice it deserves.

Review Score: TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Don’t Tell hits cinemas on 18th May