The issue has been given new scrutiny in recent months with the release, and Oscar nomination, of a short film that explores the case titled Detainment. Using actual transcripts from the police interviews of Venables and Thompson as the basis for the dialogue, the film has been described by the director, Vincent Lambe, as an attempt to “bring some shades of grey” to a previously black-and-white story where Venables and Thompson had been portrayed as irrefutably evil individuals. The film has inevitably drawn criticism from tabloids, describing it as “exploitative” in what is perhaps more of a headline-grabbing, uninformed reaction based upon the word-of-mouth controversy and initial premise of the film as opposed to its actual content. The film has not yet been screened in the UK, with only a trailer and several clips currently available online. Above all the sensationalism and Oscar buzz however, the film has been heavily criticised by two individuals involved more closely with the case than any of the countless cultural commentators and news pundits; Ralph Bulger and Denise Fergus, the parents of the murdered James Bulger.
Neither of Bulger’s parents were consulted on the making of the film, and although Vincent Lambe has expressed regret over their reaction, he has claimed this was to keep the central argument of his film intact and provide hopefully a greater understanding of a highly troubling and very high profile case. This is perhaps a discussion that’s warranted, particularly in regard to the incendiary public reaction to the Bulger case. Some news footage from 1993 shows protestors pelting the vans transporting Venables and Thompson to trial with rocks. The inversion of social norms that crimes as horrific as the Bulger case seem to illicit is something that continues today with a recent example being the Reeva Steenkamp killing in 2013 and the bizarre tide of ableist quips that were suddenly normalised in relation to the perpetrator, and famed Paralympian, Oscar Pistorius.
Lambe is not necessarily misguided in his belief that a debate needs to be had around the black-and-white perception of James Bulger’s killers and the cultural perception of some criminals generally but Detainment is an example of too much and too soon. The film has reportedly induced a wave of fresh grief for Bulger’s parents. In addition to the Thompson/Venables interview transcripts the film reportedly also contains a re-enactment of the moment Bulger was abducted by his killers. I was also initially surprised that Bulger’s parents seemed to have little in the way of legal ground to protest the film; contrary to popular belief, individuals and their families do not ‘own’ the rights to their life stories and filmmakers and journalists are left in the clear to do what they want with such stories providing they refrain from defamation or obtaining information regarding these stories illegally. Despite pleas from Bulger’s parents to Lambe to remove the film from the Oscar race, it remains in the running and will likely be broadcast publically in the UK later this year.
As the director, Lambe’s intentions would seem to be decent enough, but these do not lessen the fact that his film will have to be marketed and sold like any other product and it has, crucially, been made at a time when there are still people involved with the Bulger case being forced to live with its aftermath in a very public and painful way. If no laws exist to protect real-life individuals in these sorts of cases then there should at least be the introduction of a significant ‘grace period’ where creatives and commentators are legally obliged to wait a certain amount of time before presenting their versions of true life stories. An ideal world would see every family member consulted beforehand but this is about as likely as the film industry refusing to adapt 'true life' stories full stop.
Available clips from Lambe's film show a sobering and seemingly non-exploitative film that aims to provide a previously lacking humanisation to the child perpetrators of one of the nation’s most horrendous crimes; regardless of the film’s merit however, the debate it tackles around public demonisation of criminals could have been handled via different means or even without specific reference to the Bulger case. It’s a necessary debate, but not one that should come at the expense of the well-being of Bulger’s parents.
The fact that 'Detainment' has been made, let alone Oscar nominated, highlights a growing disconnect between the media and its real life subjects; it's an issue that will surely only increase in severity in years to come as the film industry's output, and insatiable appetite for 'true-life' stories, continues to surge.