Image: Vincent Lambe via BBC

The murder of two-year-old James Bulger by two ten-year-old boys in England back in February 1993 is a crime we British would rather forget. It loomed large and long at the time, and between the horror of what happened to a little child (he was severely abused and battered before succumbing) and sympathy for his parents, the question of what made the older boys commit such a crime was reduced to “evil”. Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were, if not pure evil themselves, certainly instruments of it. They served eight years detention and were released with new identities.

Now, Irish director Vincent Lambe has made a short film that seeks to humanise the boys. He has recreated the police interviews with them both, using the original transcripts and court testimony, voiced by child actors. The film also recreates the moments before and after Thompson and Venables led James away from a shopping centre.

So far, the 30-minute film has only been shown at film festivals, which would have been provocative enough for the Bulger family – who were not informed or consulted about its making; but last week the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences nominated “Detainment” for an Oscar for the “best live-action short film” in the upcoming awards.

Denise Fergus, Jamie’s mother, is understandably upset and angry. She had already started a petition to have the film withdrawn from circulation, which has been signed by at least 90,000 people, and feels that the nomination – from the glitzy, liberal entertainment world — is a deliberate rebuff to the family.

Lambe told the BBC, before the Oscar nomination, that he “wouldn't expect them to be comfortable with a film which humanises the boys but I do hope they understand the reason it was made, and it certainly wasn't to bring any more grief to them.

“The reason the film was made was to try and offer more of an understanding as to how these two 10-year-old boys could have committed such a horrific crime because I think if we don't understand the cause of it, it's likely that something similar will happen again in the future.”

Is that a reasonable thing to do? Or should it never have been attempted?

It is impossible not to feel for the Bulger family. The parents’ marriage broke up under the appalling strain they suffered after their little boy’s murder and both parents, especially Denise, the mother, have been vocal in their continued anger over the years, not least at the news of this film about their toddler’s young killers.

Given this, should a film therefore never be made about such an appalling case? I disagree. To give the director the benefit of the doubt, I would like to hope that he did not intend to make the film into an aesthetic experience (I haven’t seen it, I should add, so this is speculative.) Perhaps he did want to raise the serious question: how could this have happened, when the perpetrators are children themselves?

We live in a secular and post-Christian society. The two  viewpoints generally aired when terrible crimes are committed are those of the liberal intelligentsia, who are desperate to find sociological and psychological answers for the mystery of human sin and thus to explain the evil away, and of the tabloid press which, in cases like this, has predictable headlines screaming, “Let those evil monsters rot in hell!”

Neither position is remotely satisfactory. Outside the Christian view of human nature, which sees it as deeply flawed but redeemable, our society is completely at sea over a case like the Bulger toddler. It is simply incomprehensible. I would suggest that the film-maker, a typical modern man, as confused about the case as most people, wanted to raise this question again with his film, in the forlorn hope of finding an answer, and that he was not seeking fame.

In response to those who think society has shown more compassion to the two young killers than to the family of the little boy, I would simply say that, If they were ever to be let out of prison — and the law, being merciful as well as just, says they should — then they had to be given false identities; otherwise their lives would have been made impossible and they would probably have been murdered themselves by self-appointed vigilantes from the mob. Is this what we want? Is society to lock up and throw away the key on two 11-year-old boys?

The case raises general questions about the nature of psychopathy – the word we give to killers who seemingly show no signs of remorse. There has been research done in the US on the brains of murderers who have agreed to MRI scans and the like. A significant number of them showed brain damage/differences in the area of the brain where responsibility and decision-making take place. This does not absolve them from responsibility for what they did but it has a place in the way we apportion their guilt.  If “nature”, i.e. genes, or very early brain trauma is put together with a brutal and neglected childhood, it can in rare cases lead to murder.

I also think of a nototious case in the 1970s, when an 11-year-old girl, Mary Bell, was found to have strangled, over a period of months, two little boys. She went to a specialist child unit (as the Bulger killers did) as she was too young for an adult prison. It seems that she came under the good influence of a male social worker at the unit.

His influence – perhaps as a stable and caring father figure that she had never known – and the intensive intervention offered to her did help change her life. She also has had special protection for years and a changed identity – necessarily – but has never again been in trouble with the police. She has also had a daughter herself and by all accounts has been a good and caring mother. Yet the families of her toddler victims are still, fifty years later, crying for vengeance.

Thus on balance I don’t think it is wrong to have made the film — if it has been treated as a serious and humane project, not merely an aesthetic one, let alone sensationalist. It will not bring any closure to the Bulger parents, but if it helps in any way to throw more light on why the two young killers acted as they did, that is surely a good thing.

As a final thought: my late husband worked as a welfare officer in an institute for young murderers aged 18-24. One of them, intellectually very able in a community of men who generally have a low IQ (another understudied feature of crime) formed a particular bond with him. My husband stayed in touch with him when he was finally released from prison many years later, having paid his debt to society. 

This young man completely turned his life around. He started his own successful business, got married and now has a happy, stable home life. (He also became a Catholic.) He attributes his wish to change his life to the simple fact of being treated by my husband as a fellow human being, not as a prison number or as a “monster”. No-one had ever treated him like that before.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.