Did we really need a ﬁlm about the James Bulger murder?
The ﬁlm about the toddler’s killers has reopened the debate about punishment versus rehabilitation
Film reviews usually leave us feeling one way or the other about actually wanting to sit down and spend a certain amount of our lives watching someone else’s vision on screen. They analyse a film and ultimately express the critics personal opinion on the movie.
However, Gaby Hinsliff’s review has left me on the fence. In fact, is this a film review at all?
Her effective title, ‘Did we really need a ﬁlm about the James Bulger murder?’ grabs the reader’s attention and draws us in. Hats off to her, she’s already achieved her aim and we’re wide eyed and bushy tailed and ready to find out if we should bother watching this movie ourselves at all.
But as I started devouring the words on the page before me, approximately halfway down the first paragraph, I realise I haven’t a clue what she’s talking about. Where’s my much-anticipated film review?
‘How does an 11-year-old boy end up alone in a London police cell? Eleven years old, for heaven’s sake. That means either still in primary school, or at best in the nervous beginnings of secondary. Eleven still says muddy knees, ﬂapping around in a blazer several sizes too big, and wanting a bedtime story …’
Not really what I was expecting. In fact, I feel totally off topic altogether.
This is in fact, the opening of Hinsliff’s debate.
‘The ﬁlm about the toddler’s killers has reopened the debate about punishment versus rehabilitation.’
The pseudo-title is glossed over by the magnitude of the opening title so reading it for the first time you will feel a bit cheated. And it is easy to stray from the very beginning.
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I wouldn’t really imagine that Hinsliff gains too many readers by her chosen way of creating a debatable subject. I got lost straight away and had to retrace my footsteps and I could imagine with a hot headline like that, I’m sure most readers did.
But continuing on, I find her language is open and honest. I immediately feel I am reading a mother’s words. It certainly would resonate with the female audience and perhaps with the general family friendly type people as it is candid to the point of being familiar. And so, I am left questioning, is it appropriate for a professional journalist to write in such a manner especially when discussing such a sensitive topic? It almost feels like a fictional novel.
She states, ‘the mind makes leaps’, (as does her writing I find). Hinsliff is quick to comment on common day anti-social and criminal behaviour from children. A section in her writing where I feel she could back up her discussion with some real noteworthy facts and figures. However, she is swift to pass comment and move on thus lessening the gravity of her actual subject matter – punishment versus child rehabilitation.
‘Detainment’ is a film written and directed by Irish director, Vincent Lambe. It is based on the true story of the murder of toddler James Bulger by 11 year old Jon Venables and Robert Thompson in 1993. It is a harrowing story for anyone, especially by anyone that was immediately affected by the actual murder. Yet Lambe is the first director to want to tell it directly from the preliminary source – the police transcripts and the video footage of the murderers’ confessions, and he does so without embellishing the truth.
However contradictory to the incentive of the actual film, Hinsliff creates her own vision of the goings on during the actual kidnapping and murdering of the child. And she purposely takes us down her imaginative lane by addressing us directly and asking us to wander with her dark conjured up world.
‘Close your eyes, and you may still be able to see the CCTV images shown night after night; a tiny boy, his hand trustingly in that of an older child, being led off to what we now understand will be his death….’
Her language is colourful and evocative and so far from realistic truth of events that unravelled in 1993. She tries her best to be captivating as if she herself is writing the script and then is happy to slam Lambe for being insensitive. This itself, is completely contradictory to the reasons Lambe made the film.
“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.”
I think Hinsliff really hammers home her own emotional feelings on the film when she states;
‘When Detainment was this week nominated for an Oscar in the best live-action short film category, a title that in this context sounds hideously crass, the family were understandably angry and distressed. Regardless of the artistic merits of the film, there is something grotesque about placing their dead boy in this glitzy, superficial, red-carpeted context.
I think her liberal approach is nearly more disrespectful than the actual film. She fails to take any virtues that Vincent offers in the film, any of the light that perhaps has been thrown on us even in such tragic circumstances to teach us and to move us forward as a society.
Her own referral to the glitzy, superficial, red-carpet seems far more perverted in my eyes than Vincent’s vision. She is purposely spoiling our thoughts on the subject by her use of language.
‘Friends of the family say they see the film as part of a wider liberal agenda to build sympathy for Venables and Thompson, pushing the memory of their son to one side.’
Hinsliff gives no evidence to prove that this is Lambe’s aim. He has maintained true to transcripts and even had Detective Albert Kirby who headed up the 1993 case change his opinion after watching the film.
‘He (Lambe) claims that Kirby has since seen the film and changed his position: “But the tabloids haven’t corrected their reports.” ‘
She continues her debate with information on the background of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. This is clearly the most important information needed for to answer both her headlines
1/ Do we really need a film about the James Bulger murder?
2/ Is there a debate here about punishment versus rehabilitation?
However, Hinsliff doesn’t spend any considerable amount of time analysing it. In fact, there is no sign any of investigative journalism where there should be. To use her own words against her;
‘To rake over all this again, with the pain it invariably causes, seems justified only if there is something new to say.’
Lambe on the other hand, spent countless days, months and years going through all the evidence given, the transcripts, the video footage and interviewed all the specialists on the case at the time.
“Obviously I had a lot of apprehension about making the film because it’s such a hugely sensitive case. So it took years of thought and writing and rewriting and research, and then when I decided to make it as a 30-minute drama, I wanted to make sure everything was entirely factual, and there was no embellishment. I wanted it be responsibly made.”
Hinsliff uses sensationalist journalism, typical of the tabloids to keep us focused on her writing. It is in complete contrast to Lambe’s depiction of the horrendous case.
‘The unanswered question hanging over Lambe’s film is why now, and why this story of all true stories? If the point was to introduce a new generation to the argument, then why not through the stories of that generation, fictionalised if necessary to avoid intrusion?’
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Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were and still are the only minors to be tried as adults in British history. This case is completely unique and so to answer her question, the point of retelling this awful told story is to analyse if it is fair for minors from abusive backgrounds themselves, to be tried as adults. There are simply and thankfully no stories of this magnitude to tell this generation. They just do not exist. A small amount of investigation would have informed Hinsliff of this and she too could have been a responsible journalist and passed on this vital information.
Her comparison of the so called 11 year old boy who had been locked up in a cell is a complete insult to the Bulger family I find. That child we learn later, was accused of cyber-bullying, a far cry from the torture that James Bulger endured at the hands of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. To use this example as a basis of debate regarding appropriate punishment and rehabilitation shows complete lack of respect for all parties involved.
As mentioned before, this is the word to keep in mind throughout this debate. It is the question that everyone has asked the judicial system when discussing the punishment given to the 2 murderers, ‘Is it appropriate to trial minors as adults?’ It is also the question that Vincent Lambe is asked time and time again, ‘Is it appropriate to create a film about a toddlers defenceless murder?’ But I somehow wonder, is it appropriate firstly and foremostly for a journalist to be writing in this subjective and persuasive manner about a very sensitive subject and is it appropriate to write a debate without having done any basic research first?
In her own words, I find her writings, ‘hideously crass’.
I don’t think she’s prepared to investigate the questions that she herself has asked because she is too emotionally entangled in the murder case of James Bulger. Her aim to create a debate, is lost by overriding the very basis for the actual debate. She emotionalises what happened rather than being truthful for the fairness of all parties involved. And her poor choice of example only exemplifies her lack of imagination to the debate. The feeling of cheat I felt at the beginning has only grown as I have continued reading her un-impressionistic article.
Should Lambe have made this film?
I don’t know. But I think he is right. Maybe we do need to be open about this subject no matter how horrendous it is. Maybe understanding the minds of a monster and knowing what made these monsters will help us protect other children in the future. Maybe if we had the courage as Lambe does, maybe we would be able correct the wrong or at least lead the misled. And lastly, maybe we could resolve the issue of punishment versus rehabilitation.
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