Is it wrong to humanise James Bulger’s killers?

Published

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Chris Dobson
Writer

There’s no such thing as bad publicity, according to the old adage; I wonder if Vincent Lambe agrees. His thirty-minute short film Detainment has had its fair share of good and bad publicity. Already the recipient of multiple awards and rave reviews, it is now a nominee for an Oscar for Best Short Film (Live Action). The word “controversial” is, however, an understatement when it comes to describing Detainment’s reception in the United Kingdom, despite having only had a limited release at film festivals.

At the time of writing, a petition on Change.org calling for its Oscar nomination to be withdrawn and for the film not to be shown has gathered over 250,000 signatures. Lambe presumably knew he was venturing into controversial territory when he chose the film’s subject matter: the 1993 murder of James Bulger. Bulger was not yet three when he was abducted, tortured and killed by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. The case shocked the world, not least because the killers were only ten years old themselves. How could such young children commit such a crime? Were they simply evil, or were they themselves victims of their troubled upbringings?

Detainment does not seek to answer these difficult questions. Instead it is a haunting character study of two young boys who have done something unthinkable. The performances by Ely Solan (who plays Venables) and Leon Hughes (Thompson) are phenomenal, but in different ways: Solan conveys Venables’ fear and guilt as he sobs uncontrollably, whilst Hughes is steely in his portrayal of “the boy who didn’t cry”, as Thompson became known in their trial. Detainment does not show the trial, nor does it mention Venables’ reoffending after his release. Instead it focuses on the day of the crime and the subsequent police questioning of Venables and Thompson.

According to Lambe, Detainment “is almost entirely verbatim” and there are “no embellishments there whatsoever”. It is true that the film relies on interview transcripts and police records for much of its dialogue, but this does not mean that the film is neutral in its portrayal of the killers. Music is employed to move viewers and make them sympathise with the scared, panicking Venables, and we are shown the anguish of the boys’ parents but not that of James Bulger’s family.

James’ parents, Denise Fergus and Ralph Bulger, are understandably outraged by such a portrayal of their son’s murderers and Lambe has apologised for not consulting James’ family or even informing them about the film before its release. Fergus has accused Lambe of using her son’s death to make money and achieve fame, and it must be distressing for James’ parents to have the whole atrocity acted out again and given the spotlight of an Oscar nomination. Fergus has said she wants to make sure that in the future filmmakers cannot capitalise on similar tragedies, at least not while the victims’ families are still alive and grieving.

This raises an important question about art and censorship. Should films be able to cover any issue, or are some topics, such as the brutal murder of a toddler, too controversial, too harrowing? Is what matters a film’s content and quality, or should Lambe be censored, not rewarded, for distressing James Bulger’s family?

It was wrong of Lambe not to at least let James’ parents know about the film before its release, although it is understandable why he did not seek their permission, since they would have most likely denied it. Film, like all art, is a powerful medium precisely because it has the capacity to tackle any issue, no matter how difficult. Think about the slew of films about the Holocaust – there are still many living survivors of this atrocity, as well as the relatives of those who did not survive. Should a filmmaker who sets out to make a film about the Shoah consult all of those who might be distressed by such a film? What about a film that humanises a perpetrator of these crimes against humanity?

A work of art – whether it be a film, a novel or a painting – should be judged on its individual merits. Having watched Detainment, I commend Vincent Lambe for his skill as a filmmaker, as well as the talent of the child actors in the film. We can all choose whether or not to see this film, but it is wrong to try to censor it just because we disagree with its approach. Sometimes art is controversial, and that’s a good thing: it’s a sign that we live in a free and open society. People should watch Detainment, therefore, before judging its worth.