Consulting James Bulger’s family ahead of new film Detainment would have been tactful, but not compulsory

Detainment can scarcely be reviewed from its trailer alone – but if it does show its subjects as human, that can only be for the good of the film, and for anyone who sees it. 

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This year’s Academy Awards nominations are not announced until 22 January, but some of the categories – Foreign Language Film, Music (Original Song) – always unveil their long-lists ahead of time. Members registered to vote in those particular disciplines narrow the competitors to the final five on which the entire Academy can then have its say.

These are not traditionally categories which generate news stories, let alone controversy. The going rate for paparazzi shots of the nominees in the Documentary (Short Subject) race is discouragingly low. Controversy tends not to attach itself to the names fighting it out for Makeup and Hairstyling. Titles vying for the Short Film (Live Action) prize aren’t usually mentioned on Loose Women.

This year, there is an exception. Among the nine contenders in the latter category is a 30-minute British short called Detainment, which was this week the suject of an emotional discussion on the aforementioned ITV daytime show. The film, written and directed by Vincent Lambe, is constructed from transcripts taken from police interviews with Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the 10-year-old boys found guilty of the murder in 1993 of three-year-old James Bulger after abducting him from a shopping centre in Bootle, Merseyside. Lambe said in a statement posted on Twitter this week that Detainment is “entirely factual with no embellishments whatsoever” and “almost entirely verbatim”.

Can something have “no embellishments whatsoever” and still be slightly less than 100 per cent verbatim? That’s one to muse on when the film is screened more widely. As yet, only a trailer is available.

James Bulger’s mother, Denise Fergus, appeared on Loose Women to demand that the film be removed from consideration by the Academy. What aggrieved her was the lack of contact from Lambe, who had not sought her permission or approval, or even notified her about the making of the film. “In my own personal opinion I think he’s just trying to big his career up,” she said. “And to do that under someone else’s grief is just unbelievable and unbearable.”

The question of why Lambe proceeded with the film without making contact with those hurt most by the murder is one best left to his conscience. “With hindsight, I am sorry I did not make Mrs Fergus aware of the film,” he said this week. It would undoubtedly have been tactful, though it isn’t by any means compulsory, and one can appreciate the importance of wanting to produce in isolation a work which seeks to render everyone involved as humanly as possible, without recourse to the hysteria or partiality which characterised much of the press reporting on the case. Let's not forget that, at the end of the trial in 1993, the Daily Mirror splashed pictures of Thompson and Venables on its front page under the headline “Freaks of Nature,” while the Sun responded to erroneous and unproven claims that the horror film Child’s Play 3 had inspired the killers by telling its readers: “For the sake of ALL our kids… BURN YOUR VIDEO NASTY!” On the occasion of their sentencing, the Daily Star asked: “How Do You Feel Now, You Little Bastards?”

What appears also to have angered the victim’s family is the portrayal in Detainment of Thompson and Venables as human beings who committed a terrible crime, as opposed to monsters. In this regard, though, the family has no greater dominion or special influence over the film and its subject than the rest of us, let alone the power of veto. The facts are in the public domain, and it is up to Lambe, or anyone, to do with them what they will; the hope is that any artistic enterprise will be conducted with sensitivity. “There has been criticism that the film ‘humanises’ the killers,” Lambe has said, “but if we cannot accept that they are human beings, we will never begin to understand what could have driven them to commit such a horrific crime. The only way to prevent something similar happening in the future is if we understand the cause of it.”

Detainment can scarcely be reviewed from its trailer alone, but if it does show its subjects as human, that can only be for the good of the film, and for anyone who sees it. The murder of James Bulger was a reprehensible act – but the treatment of his killers was shocking too. Tried as adults, they were vilified not only by the press but by irresponsible politicians, who made of the case no end of capital. The then-prime minister, John Major, used the occasion to announce that “We must condemn a little more and understand a little less”, while Tony Blair called the killing “a hammer-blow against the sleeping conscience of the country” and found in such rhetoric a surefire vote-winner.

There have been powerful criticisms made against those attitudes in the 26 years since Venable and Thompson were imprisoned; most notable among these is As If, Blake Morrison’s troubling book about the murder, the trial and its ramifications.

What part Detainment will play in the conversation remains to be seen. But if it can act as even a small corrective to our numbing tendency to dehumanise murderers, asking instead why people not that different from us might do terrible things, then it will have been worth making.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.