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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Analysis -

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 con- victed 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 me- tic­u­lous 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.

‘Ven­ables was sent back to jail in 2010 for hav­ing child pornog­ra­phy’

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

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