Aden Young as Stephen Roche and Sara West as Lyndal in Don’t Tell.?? Jack Thompson has had decades of accolades for his acting. But it was a standing ovation for an anonymous Australian woman in the audience that made him emotional at the world premiere of Don’t Tell in California last month.
The film, described as Australia’s Spotlight, tells the story of how the woman, known only as Lyndal, won a landmark court case over the sexual abuse she suffered at school.
The drama shows a damaged but defiant Lyndal taking on Queensland’s Toowoomba Preparatory School a decade after she was abused by a boarding house master when she was 12.
It was a case that later led to the resignation of Peter Hollingworth as governor-general – he was Archbishop of Brisbane at the time of the abuse – and contributed to the creation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Lyndal, now in her late thirties, attended the premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival, where Don’t Tell won the audience award.
Thompson was thrilled to see her get such a warm response after so many years of suffering.
“When it was pointed out that she was there, she stood up – bless her heart – with tears in her eyes and the whole theatre gave her a standing ovation because it’s a tale of her courage,” he says. “Just telling the story brings a tear to my eye.”
Don’t Tell is based on a book by lawyer Stephen Roche (played by Aden Young), who represented 22-year-old Lyndal (Sara West) when she took action against the school in 2001.
The school had denied she had been sexually abused by a boarding house master Kevin Guy (Gyton Grantley) a decade earlier. Her win meant the Anglican Archdiocese of Brisbane had to pay compensation of more than $800,000.
In an exceptional cast for a $4.5 million film, Rachel Griffiths plays a psychologist who counselled Lyndal, with Susie Porter and Martin Sacks as her parents, Thompson and Jacqueline McKenzie as rival barristers and Kim Knuckey as Hollingworth.
Director Tori Garrett was also touched by the ovation for Lyndal at the premiere.
“Oh my god,” she says. “She was brave enough to stand up; it’s making me emotional now talking about it. I was weeping. It was just a fantastic thing.”
After the film was rejected for funding by traditional sources – both because of the difficult subject matter and because Oscar best picture winner Spotlight had already covered similar territory – Roche eventually put up much of the budget.
“People were saying, ‘It’s already been done. You’re not going to be better than Spotlight’,” Thompson says. “But this is a different telling of the tale of institutional abuse.”
The veteran actor stresses the film tells a triumphant story.
“This film is a victory for Lyndal,” he says. “She’s a victim of child abuse but she’s a winner.”
Thompson, who is is among many to be angered by the extent of child sexual abuse revealed during the Royal Commission, sees the film as valuable for giving victims hope for justice and for showing how it has been allowed to take place.
“What makes me angry is the covering up of it,” he says. “There’s a growing awareness that it it needs to be openly presented and exposed. A whole lot less young people will fall victim to sexual predators if they’re aware of what this movie is about.
“It’s not a movie in which you see terrible detail of sexual abuse. In fact, it depicts apparently how easily it all happens. How it’s so easy for a young, unsophisticated person on the edge of becoming an adult to be persuaded by an older person. It’s a real window into how institutional abuse occurs.”
Thompson says the strength of the writing by James Greville, Ursula Cleary and Anne Brooksbank??? attracted the top-flight cast.
“The script is simply and beautifully written,” he says. “It doesn’t make anyone out to be villains or heroes. It simply presents the tale itself and it presents it very accurately.”
Directing her first film after working on such television series as Wentworth, Wonderland and Hiding, Garrett says anger fuelled what she calls a triumphant survivor story.
“I felt very strongly that this was a terrible wrong that had happened to this child,” she says “The courage she had to fight and right the wrong was just amazing to me.
“I have a 12-year-old daughter who goes to a similar school and I thought the complete absence of accountability by the church and the school – and the cover-up of the truth – to the detriment of an innocent, beautiful girl just made me furious. I was very compelled to tell the story for Lyndal.”
Garrett rattles off a list of films that were inspiration for Don’t Tell.
“I wanted to make a legal drama like To Kill A Mockingbird and Erin Brockovich and The Verdict and those kind of films about justice being done.”
Garrett came to know Lyndal well making the film and says she is now a single mother who has managed to avoid the tragic fate of many sexual abuse victims – suicide.
“She’s a very strong person,” she says. “Otherwise she would never have got through this. But she’s very fragile; she’s ruined on the inside.”
Don’t Tell is screening now.