Before dissecting whether Detainment is morally detestable or a necessary piece of film, it is important to understand how Vincent Lambe made the movie. Almost all of the 30-minute film is made by recreating police interviews from the case verbatim. Only some scenes that took place outside the interview-room, based on CCTV footage, were dramatised, and these are far from sensational but the film has attracted a backlash from James Bulger’s family, with Denise Fergus, James Bulger’s mother, demanding the director pulls out of the Oscars.
In an era where a new true crime documentary pops up every day on Netflix, and Ted Bundy has become the focus of a Sundance film, British society has a uniquely wilful blindspot when it comes to the horrific murder of James Bulger.
Before proceeding, it is equally important to note that none of the following thoughts about Detainment, and its qualities as a piece of film, detract from the horror of the murder, the grief James Bulger’s family have endured, or the seriousness of the crime.
“There’s never been an independent inquiry into this case,” Katie Woodland, developmental psychologist with a BA focus in criminology, informs me.
“We’ve never looked back and asked ‘why did this happen’. There’s a perception created 25 years ago that these boys were just evil.
Detainment: Vincent Lambe’s movie has received backlash for its portrayal of the murderers
“But children are not born evil,” Woodland says emphatically.
“Even 25 years ago we knew children who were in homes with violence, truancy, criminality, who witness traumatic incidents — all of those factors massively increase the risk of violent offending.”
Despite knowing this, there has been little investigation into the factors that lead to the murder of James Bulger, into what made Venables and Thompson into abjectly cruel killers.
“Every time somebody tries to talk about the other side it’s quashed,” Woodland says.
But why? Rather, why do ‘we’ as a society have trouble examining this horrific case?
Woodland has one answer: fear.
“Something we’ve known for a long time, even then, was that parenting style, lack of social networks, and lack of education impacts children’s development,” she said.
“Yes there is a genetic interplay, yes there are lots of factors, but for the majority of their childhood, it’s society’s responsibility to make sure that kids grow up okay.”
Woodland explained: “It’s safer for ‘me’ as a mum to think: there’s no way my children would grow up that way. They’re not evil’.
James Bugler: The case against Jon Venables and Robert Thompson elicited unprecedented emotion
“But when you backtrack and work out all the little things that happened to lead to something like violent offending, you start to question yourself.”
Though you and I may know in ourselves we don’t have the capability to commit murder, Woodland says: “we can’t guarantee that we may not mess up enough that a child then grows up to be an unhealthy person with maladaptive behaviour.”
Backlash is a coping mechanism, Woodland says, but it won’t prevent something like this from happening again.
Binary thinking, that Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were born evil, is equally unhelpful to society as a whole and the only way to disrupt that binary thought process is to understand them. And to understand them, you have to humanise them.
Which is precisely what Detainment does.
Detainment: The movie by Vincent Lambe is impressive in its feat has been subjected to backlash
“Detainment humanises the boys and when you humanise them, you have it smacked in your face that it could happen again,” Woodland says.
By showing Venables and Thompson as humans, and therefore complex, Detainment opens up a dialogue necessary to understanding this kind of abhorrent violent offence.
“By dubbing them ‘evil’, we have suppressed the links between Venables’ and Thompson’s childhoods and the fact that they committed murder,” Woodland says.
It is a necessary step forward to being able to study, examine, and understand those links.
And, as Woodland adds: “This has never been about lessening the damage that what they did has caused the Bulger family.
“It’s about the fact that if we don’t understand why we can’t get better.”