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Detainment (2019): A Film Too Far?

Written by Film

One of the most controversial aspects of our current entertainment climate is the gluttony of documentaries and films chronicling tales of true crime. TV stations regularly broadcast re-creation documentaries about some of the world’s worst killers.

There are some tales, however, the details of which are so vile and vivid in the public’s consciousness that no form of media has yet to transform into a piece of entertainment. One such case is that of James Bulger. On the evening of 12th February 1993, two-year old Bulger was led away from his parents in a Liverpool shopping centre, taken to a railway track and killed in a way I will detail here. Unfortunately, but sadly not surprisingly, children go missing often and cases often don’t have a happy ending.

What sets this crime apart is not just the brutality of the murder, but the profile of the killers. Little Jamie was killed, not by a seasoned criminal or lone psychopath, but by two ten-year old children. The two perpetrators, John Venables and Robert Thompson were incarcerated after being found guilty at their trial in November 1993.

I believe Lambe should have consulted the family before proceeding with the film and acquiesced to their wishes.

Now, the story is back in the headlines thanks to a highly-acclaimed yet deeply controversial Irish short film entitled ‘Detainment’, the first major project by Dublin born film-maker Vincent Lambe. Running 30 minutes in length, the film is a recreation of the interviews conducted on both Venables and Thompson by police and psychologists. The performances of the two young leads; Ely Solan (Venables) and Leon Hughes (Thompson), the cinematography and the tone of the film have all been praised. Beyond it’s Oscar nomination, the film has been in the news because of its story matter yes, but also because the Bulger family were not consulted about its production and did not give it their blessing. They have since called for a boycott and its removal from award-ceremony consideration. The protests of the Bulger family raises some interesting, perhaps even moral, questions; Should the film have been made given its a.) subject matter and b.) without the consent of the Bulger family?

There are no definite answers to these questions, but for what it’s worth, here is my view. Firstly, yes the film should have been made. I firmly believe there is no topic, no matter how painful, that should be off-limits to art, providing the intent behind it is good, as seems to be the case here. Despite this, I can’t help but agree that no, the film shouldn’t have been made. Not because of its content, but because of its context. The Bulger family is still alive. Still living the daily torment of the loss. A film like this, with all its publicity and hype just brings the spotlight back to a family who have had their share of media intrusion. I believe Lambe should have consulted the family before proceeding with the film and acquiesced to their wishes.

However, the film has been made, will be widely viewed and will likely win awards including the Oscar for Best Live Action Short, despite the 230,000 signatures currently gained to remove it from contention. Ultimately, despite the controversy, it should not be denied its accolades if they are deserved. Hopefully the film can achieve what the makers hoped and do more than satiate our natural morbid curiosity and spark a conversation about what could drive two fairly innocuous  young boys to commit a crime so vile its scars can still be felt today.

So, when I sit down to watch this movie I will do so conflicted. Intrigued on one hand at how a film-maker can take such an evocative subject and make something wonderful from it, and conscious that in the process it brings the Bulger family grief. So, I say see the film if you want to, and judge it on its merits, but when you leave the theatre give a minute to think about the Bulger family and be grateful for the life you have to live.

Last modified: 22nd October 2019

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