Cinema, that great empathy machine, continues to move us in ways other media can’t. Over 26 years, the murder of toddler James Bulger has been revisited in plays, TV documentaries and countless newspaper columns – many of them animated by the question of whether ‘evil’ describes the two ten-year-old killers, or just their crime. Yet it’s taken this, the first dramatised film about the case, to elicit an outright denunciation from Bulger’s parents (and a petition to revoke its Oscar nomination for best live action short film).
Detainment re-enacts scenes from the police’s interrogations of the killers, Jon Venables (Ely Solan) and Robert Thompson (Leon Hughes), and from the boys’ long walk with Bulger. The torture and murder are not depicted, but described in some detail in dialogue lifted almost verbatim from police transcripts. In quiet interludes, the boys are shown reading comics and being comforted by their parents. Thompson fleetingly says that he’s “sick of” having to care for his little brother; otherwise, writer-director Vincent Lambe doesn’t speculate about their motivations. After all, they are pre-teens, and standard notions of accountability don’t apply. Their confusion under questioning speaks volumes.
What roles for child actors to play, and what performances these two deliver. Solan is particularly strong, his Venables a torrent of garbled emotions. Patrick Jordan’s camera captures the boys’ every twitch and grimace in glaring close-ups. These scenes are devastating. Society has demonised the killers, and their public invisibility has only made this easier to do. Merely by creating these roles, by reviving the people behind those hoary mugshots, the film is subversive; its intelligence and tact make it even more so.
As an intertitle reminds us at the end, Venables and Thompson were tried in an adult court. The film doesn’t dwell on the specific controversies of their trial. Lambe has already made his point: these children, being children, were misunderstood by the justice system and the public. If Detainment inspires better decisions in future cases, he will have succeeded.
People may well baulk at the glamour of the Oscar nod. Bulger’s parents are rightly angry that they weren’t contacted before production began (Lambe has apologised). Their reactions to the film itself are understandable, but of course it wasn’t made for them. “Society needs to condemn a little more,” said John Major, then prime minister, after the crime, “and understand a little less.” Detainment deploys cinema’s expressive tools to argue the opposite. If ever a film deserved to be seen before being judged, this one does.
Detainment — Trailer + 3 Scenes