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Irish Oscar contender attacked over movie about child killers

Vincent Lambe's movie attempts to portray James Bulger's killers as boys - and not monsters, writes Donal Lynch


Two-year-old James Bulger (inset) is led to his death by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson

Two-year-old James Bulger (inset) is led to his death by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson

Two-year-old James Bulger (inset) is led to his death by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson

In bleak January the news of an Irish Oscar nominee seems like both a welcome emotional fillip and proof that spring will come. Vincent Lambe's short film, Detainment, which got a nomination this past week, has prompted more mixed emotions than any of our recent Academy Award contenders, however.

The film deals with the interrogation of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the two boys who kidnapped, tortured and murdered toddler James Bulger in Liverpool in 1993. Using transcripts from the interrogation of the boys, Lambe has crafted an evocative and emotional examination of how two 11-year-olds became the youngest convicted murderers of the 20th Century in Britain.

It's a deeply affecting piece which has won a number of awards, including a special jury prize at Cannes, and earned standing ovations from critics. But it has also earned pointed criticism from the parents of James Bulger.

His father, Ralph, told the Mirror Lambe had not sought the family's permission or informed them the film was coming out. "It has been 26 years since my son was taken and murdered and so I have seen many documentaries and news stories about him. But I have never been so cut up and offended by something that shows so little compassion to James and his family," he said.

Bulger's mother, Denise Fergus, in an appearance on the ITV show Loose Women, also criticised the filmmakers for not consulting her, and called for the Oscars to drop the film from its shortlist.

"I don't think [Lambe] had the right to do it. In my own personal opinion I think he's just trying to big his career up. And to do that under someone else's grief is just unbelievable and unbearable."

Is this a fair charge? The pain of losing a child is indeed unbearable and it might be said anything that adds to the grief of the parents is not justified.

But the Jamie Bulger murder was no ordinary case - the rules were bent or changed at every level to allow for its extraordinary facts. Venables and Thompson, who had abducted Jamie Bulger from a crowded shopping centre, were tried in the adult criminal justice system, a decision later criticised by the European Court of Human Rights.

Other children who had committed serious crimes had identities protected but, at the close of the trial, the judge lifted reporting restrictions and allowed the names of the killers to be released, saying: "I did this because the public interest overrode the interest of the defendants. There was a need for an informed public debate on crimes committed by young children."

Art and culture inform that kind of debate, by challenging our perceptions and lending nuance to the inevitably broader brushstrokes of journalism. Speaking to RTE, Lambe said: "[Detainment] was never intended to bring any more anguish to the Bulger family. In hindsight, I think we probably should have got in touch or let her know we were going to make it."

Lambe released a statement saying: "There has been criticism that the film 'humanises' the killers, 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."

Jamie Bulger's parents have been interviewed endlessly, their lives since their son's death chronicled in meticulous detail. His mother brought out a book last year and has appeared on numerous television programmes.

And yet we know almost nothing about the parents of Venables and Thompson - all four were given new identities after their children were charged. How they may have contributed to the scenario in which their sons were committing violent crime while playing truant is probably more to the point of understanding this case than the grief voyeurism of asking Jamie's mother one more time how she is coping.

The Irish Times said the case was "an instance when, in broad daylight, evil stalked and struck". The boys were described as "monsters". But is describing them as monsters too safe and easy? Monsters are at a remove from society. Lambe's film is uneasy watching, specifically because it turns those boys back from monsters into children.

The obsession with the case has endured. Thompson seems to have benefited from rehabilitation but Venables was sent back to prison in 2010 for possessing child pornography, underlining the impression that there was, all along, something inherently wrong with him.

Yet Venables was the one who had seemed remorseful for his role in Bulger's killing; Thompson was implacable and unrepentant. Both were said to have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder emanating from their roles in the killing. The question of what drove such young people to such depravity remains unanswered. Some would prefer not to know. In an interview with The Guardian, Denise Fergus showed what the paper called "little time for people who suggest we should try to understand rather than simply condemn Thompson and Venables".

She told the paper she preferred not to know certain details of the crime and would block out portions of reports with a black marker. This is heartbreakingly understandable but no more than the artists who made films about 9/11 needed to check in with the victims of that atrocity,

Lambe had no particular duty to Bulger's parents. The Academy may balk at the controversy, but Lambe has brought shades of grey to the black and white of this terrible case. And for that he should not apologise.

Sunday Independent