A new film about the murder of James Bulger has drawn controversy for its supposedly sympathetic depiction of the infant’s killers, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. Bulger’s parents have called for the 30-minute short to be removed from this year’s Oscars shortlist on the grounds that its creator, the Irish filmmaker Vincent Lambe, has exploited their grief for his own financial gain.
Lambe has subsequently apologised to Bulger’s mother, Denise Fergus, for not contacting her prior to making the film, and moved to clarify his intentions in a statement released on Twitter: “Representing the boys as human beings is a true reflection of what happened at the time […] and must remain a legitimate subject for discussion in a grown up society that wants to prevent crime and understand how trauma and troubled childhoods can lead to serious crimes being committed by children, young people and adults.”
Does the director have a point? What struck me most when watching the film is that – contrary to recent tabloid speculation – it does not ask the viewer to empathise with Venables and Thompson, played by newcomers Ely Solan and Leon Hughes respectively. Rather, Detainment uses interview transcripts and records – which have been in the public domain for 20 years – to recount this shocking case solely from the perspective of the perpetrators and the officers who questioned them.
The film portrays Venables and Thompson as confused, confrontational and, above all, childlike; capable of lying to the police and their parents and chillingly aware of the severity and consequences of their actions. It does not make for easy viewing. But crucially it feels neither exploitative nor tawdry, containing no graphic details or dramatic reenactment of the incident, which would unquestionably be in poor taste.
This is an extremely sensitive subject: more than two decades after the fact, it is still hard to fathom how two 10-year-old boys could be capable of committing such a heinous and violent crime. When they were sentenced, Venables and Thompson became the youngest convicted murderers of the 20th century; the apparently random and wholly senseless nature of their crime irrevocably damaged our collective belief in the inherent innocence of youth.
At the time, national newspaper headlines described the pair as “Freaks of Nature”, their act one of “Unparalleled Evil”. The media’s role in determining the public discourse around killers is often telling in the sense that identifying and publicising them as something monstrous and “non-human” allows us to distance ourselves from those whose morals seem antithetical to our own. Yet surely it is more disturbing to accept that those who commit violent crimes, even one as appalling as this, are still people, with the same basic needs and impulses as the rest of us.
Detainment does not offer any easy solutions. And it is not an especially shocking or revelatory work. Its simple power lies in the uncomfortable but unavoidable truth that it is only by attempting to understand such crimes that we can hope to prevent them from happening. That although we may prefer to assign blame on individual terms, or point the finger at the corruptive influence of film and television, society as a whole must share some responsibility for keeping children and the most vulnerable among us safe.