There are certain events in a nation’s history that etch themselves permanently into the public consciousness. Every American over a certain age will know where he was when he heard that JFK had been assassinated. Every Brit my age and older will shudder at the memory of 7/7, Lockerbie, the Hungerford Massacre, and the Dunblane shootings.
But one horror of the Nineties that stands out above any other crime was the abduction, torture, and murder of two-year-old James Bulger.
Child murders occur in Britain at a rate of around one per week, but what made this crime so infamous was that the killers were two ten-year-old boys. On February 12, 1993, little James wandered away from his mother while she was distracted for a moment in a butcher’s shop. Over thirty witnesses saw the two boys leading James out of the shopping centre but did nothing to challenge them and the few who did were told by the boys that James was their little brother, or that he was lost and they were taking him to the police station. Near a railway line, they tortured and battered the toddler to death, then laid his body across the railway tracks to make the death look like an accident.
At the time of their convictions, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were eleven-years-old and became the youngest persons convicted of murder in British legal history. The public soul-searching went on for months—how was it possible that two little children could have been evil enough to abduct a toddler and commit such cruel and extreme violence against him? What had gone wrong?
It was made quite clear during the boys’ trial that they were well-aware that their actions were wicked, that the abduction had been premeditated, and that the killers were intelligent enough to try to cover their crime by placing the body on the railway tracks. Almost as painful was the knowledge that the boys had been able to take a crying toddler right across a busy city without hindrance. Why had not one of the thirty-eight witnesses taken control of the situation and come to the rescue before it was too late?
Twenty-six years later, those questions are still being asked and James Bulger’s death continues to haunt Britain’s conscience. The news that Detainment, a short film about Bulger’s killers, has been nominated for an Oscar has provoked an understandably strong response, with comments on social media either praising the film’s alleged bravery or (more frequently) calling for a boycott.
I am one of those who has made the decision—largely as a result of researching this article—to join the boycott. I have no doubt that the film is expertly made and that the child actors, particularly Ely Solan who plays Venables, give exceptional performances. The trailer alone is enough to turn any viewer’s stomach, with its close-up shots of an unsuspecting little boy and a hysterical Venables tearfully denying involvement to his increasingly distraught mother.
Director Vincent Lambe has been at pains to tell the British press that the film is factually accurate, based very closely on the hours of police interviews with the boys, though there have been complaints by those involved with the investigation that the police interviews are depicted as a great deal more ominous than they really were. In reality, the boys were well-looked-after during the police investigation and had constant contact with parents and social workers.
Lambe’s argument is that the story needs to be told. At the time of the killings, the two boys were condemned as simply evil, the raw horror of the unfolding story was overwhelming and left the nation in a state of shock. Lambe seems to see himself in the role of truth-seeker, looking beneath the public outrage and trying—as far as it can be possible to do so—to understand what possessed two naughty boys, playing truant in a shopping centre, to commit such a crime.
The film is very much their story, but the apparent need to humanize two child-killing boys has not gone down well, not least with James Bulger’s family.
It is the treatment of James Bulger’s family, particularly his mother, Denise Fergus, that has caused the most palpable disgust in Britain and it is largely out of solidarity with her that a petition calling for the Oscar nomination to be withdrawn has garnered 150,000 signatures. The director’s failure to consult the family or even to warn them that he was making a film about the murder of their son has opened up a debate on the rights of families in this regard. Lambe broke no law in making his film and many films have been made in the past based on true stories without the permission of those most closely involved. There is no copyright on human tragedy.
However, it is difficult to justify Lambe’s behaviour when watching Denise Fergus’ heart-wrenching television appearances in which she describes how it feels to have to see re-enactments of her little boy sobbing at the hands of his soon-to-be killers. Surely common decency should have prevailed in this case? Lambe had every right to make a film based on information in the public domain, but the family had rights too—the right to protect their son’s memory, the right to privacy, to be left alone. As Denise Fergus and her husband have rightly asked, what business is it of this director to open up a debate about the origins of a crime that had absolutely nothing to do with him?
Vincent Lambe has made some attempts to justify his failure to engage with the family, but these efforts, including a very half-hearted expression of regret, have only made him come across as coldly detached from the harm he is doing. He claims he did not wish to add to the family’s anguish, but can any grown man in possession of his mental faculties honestly make such a claim? He did not intend to hurt a family by making a harrowing film about the individuals who committed a murderous attack on their little son? He did not intend to add to the family’s anguish by reconstructing the most horrific moment of that grieving mother’s life? He did not intend any harm in intentionally ignoring them and refusing their pleas to withdraw from the Oscars?
Lambe is correct to infer that dark subjects need to be confronted and debated. But he can hardly have failed to notice that the Bulger case has been much discussed over the years in books, scholarly papers, and documentaries, all seeking to come to terms with the crime Venables and Thompson committed. Detainment is not blazing a trail, and it is not the first time anyone has attempted to make sense of what happened—child psychiatrists spent much of the time Venables and Thompson were in secure institutions attempting to do just that.
What Lambe has achieved is to attract a great deal of publicity for himself. In his defense, he claims that he is not making money out of this venture. But that is beside the point. As TV presenter Philip Schofield pointed out on ITV’s This Morning, winning an Oscar changes the trajectory of a director’s career, it opens the world to them. However well-made Detainment might be, it is hard to get away from the sense that an ambitious young director is exploiting a family’s anguish to further his career.
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