Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Lambe wisely steers away from explicit accounts or depictions of most of the harm inflicted on the toddler."

If you spent time in the UK in 1993, the chances are that you're familiar with the murder of 2-year-old James Bulger. It took place on the 12th of February that year and remained in the news for a long time, with public interest intensifying when two 10-year-old boys were identified as suspects. What followed reshaped deeply ingrained cultural ideas about the nature of childhood. The case became much bigger than the boys involved. There was much talk of monsters and ultimate evil, and the fact that they were boys was somehow elided, as if they just looked that way but had been possessed. Media hysteria made it impossible to challenge the prevailing narrative. Vincent Lambe's short is, at last, an attempt to tackle the subject head on. It makes no apologies for the awful crime committed but neither does it have room for sensationalism.

Ely Solan and Leon Hughes are superb as the young killers. The former, playing Jon, gets the most screentime and is the easiest to feel for, his character giving a good impression of an innocent led astray - but as every Leopold and Loeb style pairing, the truth is more complicated. Hughes' Robert, sullen and defiant from the start, is less polished, less socially skilled - more obviously working class and at least as vulnerable in his own way. Both actors are working with transcripts of the original interviews recorded by the police; there are also dramatic reconstructions of how they spent the fateful day. Lambe wisely steers away from explicit accounts or depictions of most of the harm inflicted on the toddler. This avoids exploitation of the murdered boy and preserves some element of his dignity.It doesn't lessen its impact - the hints given through dialogue and performance are, if anything, more horrific.

Copy picture

Caleb Mason, who plays little James, ensures that our impression of him is as a wide-eyed, confused child impossibly out of his depth. The fact that he doesn't speak - perhaps because of his age, perhaps because he's intimidated or because, when we first see him, he already has a head injury - only adds to the strength of this impression. We watch as passers-by express concern for him - people who must have spent the rest of their lives wishing they'd done more. But why would they? What happened was outside the scope of most people's imagination.

Lambe doesn't judge. Observing is enough. Because his observation takes into account what it means to be ten, the film may well prove controversial, but it invites the viewer to confront the contradictions in the case. There is no dramatisation of the reported moment at which Robert asked if James had been taken to the hospital to be made alive again, but the ambiguity about the boys' understanding of what they did remains. From layers of clumsily delivered lies and obfuscations, the truth gradually emerges, as does an awareness of the gulf between understanding facts and being able to make coherent moral or emotional sense of them - not an excuse but, perhaps, some explanation.

Mention should also be made of Tara Breathnach's heart-rending performance as Jon's mother, wrestling with her instincts to protect her son and to scream at him, with her longing to defend his innocence and her awareness of what the murdered toddler's mother must be feeling. Lambe's triumph, aided by this excellent cast, is in showing that it's possible to confront such horrors without the emotional shield of demonisation. This is cinema that forces us to acknowledge the worst of human potential and still see humanity.

Reviewed on: 15 Nov 2018
Share this with others on...
Detainment packshot
Two ten year-old boys are detained by police under suspicion of abducting and murdering a toddler. A true story based on interview transcripts and records from the investigation into the murder of James Bulger.

Director: Vincent Lambe

Writer: Vincent Lambe

Starring: Ely Solan, Leon Hughes, Will O'Connell, David Ryan, Tara Breathnach, Caleb Mason

Year: 2018

Runtime: 30 minutes

Country: Ireland, UK


Search database: