‘It certainly wasn’t a career move,” says Vincent Lambe. “ I was told by everyone that this subject wouldn’t make my career – it would break it.”
The 38-year-old Irish director is responding to me asking if he made Detainment – his Oscar-nominated short film based on transcripts of the police interrogation of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the 10-year-old boys who murdered two-year-old James Bulger in 1993 – to establish himself as a director.
James’s mother, Denise Fergus, argued as much earlier this month on ITV’s Loose Women: “He’s just trying to big his career up and big himself up by [using] someone else’s grief,” she said. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, James’s father, Ralph Bulger, said he has seen many documentaries and news reports about the murder in the past 26 years and become inured to them, but “to make a film so sympathetic to James’s killers is devastating”.
“We haven’t re-enacted the murder. There’s no graphic violence,” says Lambe. But there is enough in what Lambe has dramatised from the boys’ interviews to haunt any viewer. Robert and Jon, each being questioned in different police stations, blame the other for hitting James with a brick. In another of the film’s most unbearable moments, two women are standing outside a corner shop when they see the two boys walking the toddler. One asks where they are taking him. To Walton Street police station, the boys lie. She asks the other woman to keep an eye on her daughter while she takes them to the station. But the other woman says she can’t because her dog doesn’t like children. And so the two 10-year-olds head off with the boy they will soon kill.
So why did he want to make a film about James’s murder? “I was 12 when James was murdered and I was absolutely haunted by it – just like everyone else,” he says. “When I asked why they did it, I was told they were evil. I understand why people think like that; to say they are evil is a way of coping with the fact that two 10-year-old boys committed murder. I made it to try and get a deeper understanding of why 10-year-old boys kill.”
“Amid the hysteria in 1993, Thompson and Venables lost the right to be seen as children, or even as human,” wrote Blake Morrison in his book As If after attending the murderers’ trial. “The kids who had killed the kid had to be killed, or at any rate locked up for life. The word used about them stopped all arguments. They were evil.”
Lambe says that depicting the child murderers is important if we want to get beyond that argument-stopping word. “I’m trying to open up discussion, which is important if we want to understand how trauma and troubled childhoods can lead to serious crimes being committed by children.” He agrees with David James Smith, author of The Sleep of Reason – The James Bulger Case, that the murderers “are not the evil monsters of popular imagination, but only human after all”. “But that doesn’t mean we should sympathise with them,” Lambe adds.
The boys’ differing characters are shown clearly in Lambe’s film. Thompson is sullen and defiant, scornfully challenging the detectives. “It’s always our family that gets the blame,” Thompson says at one point. “I know I never hit him so I’ve got nothing to bother about,” he says at another. Venables by contrast collapses into hysterical tears repeatedly, hugging detectives, wailing at his mother and hitting his father. “Don’t punch your dad, Jon,” says a detective as Venables screams: “Please make it stop, Dad. Make it stop!” We may feel what it might have been to be Venables in the interview or at least sympathise with him.
Throughout, Lambe insists that we see the murderers as human beings. He cites the title of Niklas Radstrom’s play about the murder, Monsters, as loaded by comparison with his relatively anodyne one. Reviewing that play 10 years ago, Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington wrote: “In all truth, it is a sober, unsensational enquiry into a tragic case, rather than a piece of theatrical exploitation.”
That’s true of Lambe’s film, too, but there is a difference: while Radstrom’s play, as Billington put it, “strains to suggest that we all share the guilt for an appalling murder”, Detainment doesn’t editorialise. But neither does it explain, and so it risks falling between two stools: Lambe’s desire to understand and his compunction about taking sides.
But why do we need this film now? The crime has scarcely been out of the news for a quarter of a century. “I hope the film makes people do their own research rather than just saying they were evil,” he says. Is he saying they weren’t evil? “No, I think they were but that word is used to shut down conversations. I want to open the conversation. We haven’t had one since 1993.”
Detainment has been nominated with four other short films for this year’s Oscars (including Black Sheep, made by the Guardian). James’s mother has called for the Oscar nomination to be withdrawn and more than 180,000 people have signed her petition. “I was very surprised when it got the nomination,” says Lambe. “It wasn’t something I sought.”
He didn’t seek out the opinion or approval of the Bulger family when making the film. “If we had, there would have been a lot of pressure to tell it the way they wanted it,” he argues. “It would not have been balanced. There’s more than one perspective in the case.”
He has since made a statement saying that he is sorry he did not make Fergus aware of the film and that he would be happy to meet “with her privately now to make that apology in person, to explain our reasons for making the film and offer my heartfelt reassurance that I never intended any disrespect by not consulting her.”
He must have expected a backlash? “Of course I did,” he says. “What I didn’t expect is people who haven’t seen the film to make inaccurate statements about it.” Detective Superintendent Albert Kirby, who arrested Thompson, appeared on This Morning Britain arguing that Detainment “lacks any form of taste or decency”. He complained that Mrs Venables was shown as “a yelling, screaming cow of a mother, which she certainy wasn’t” and that a detective was depicted as aggressive to the boys.
“This became the basis for lots of tabloids reporting that the film is inaccurate,” says Lambe. He claims that Kirby has since seen the film and changed his position: “But the tabloids haven’t corrected their reports.” He hopes Detainment can be shown in the UK quickly as a corrective to such misinformation. “That’s getting increasingly difficult. One UK film festival has already withdrawn it because of hate mail.” At present, only the trailer and some short clips from the film can be seen online, and as we talk, his distributors are trying to get a British broadcaster to screen it.
Does he have regrets about making Detainment? “Only about not speaking to the Bulgers,” he says. “I’m sorry it has upset anyone. That was never the intention.” Maybe he was naive? “I don’t think so,” he says. “If I was to go back and do it again, I would do it in exactly the same way. I wouldn’t change anything in the film.”
• The Oscars are on 24 February