"Detainment" is the name of the controversial new Irish film which has just been shortlisted in the 2019 Live Action Short Film Oscar category

The film addresses the shocking real-life James Bulger murder case, where two ten-year-old boys abducted, tortured and killed a two-year-old toddler in England in 1993.

But does it do justice to the case, or does it exploit the story as the parents of real-life murdered boy insist? Or is it a respectful exploration of how two children could come to murder another, as the director Vincent Lambe counters?

It may depend on where you stand. Evil doesn't always come with an explanation after all. In fact, the most disturbing examples are often the most senseless. The case of the two youngest convicted murderers of the 20th century in Britain is a prime example and "Detainment" reminds us of this.

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The new Irish film, which has been shortlisted for the 2019 Oscars in the Live Action Short, addresses the infamous James Bulger case, where two ten-year-olds abducted, tortured and killed a two-year-old toddler in 1993. 

Director Vincent Lambe has created a hard-hitting and frequently hard-to-watch version of the events and the people involved, before and just after the shocking murder.

What is most unnerving about the film is all the normality. It begins in a shopping center in Merseyside, Liverpool, a place so homespun you would never imagine it could witness the terror that is about to unfold.

Detainment Movie

Detainment Movie

Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, two ten-year-old boys (played by Ely Solan and Leon Hughes), are messing about in the mall when they should be in school, looking for loose change in the phone boxes and stealing candy and getting into trouble when they think no one is looking.

But then the day takes a turn so dark you won't see it coming. Noticing a toddler who has wandered away from his mother at the local butcher's shop, they look at each other and then lead the boy outside into the high streets before anyone has time to notice he's missing.

Lambe has recreated his new film from the police transcripts and from the original surveillance recording of the real-life case and the effect is utterly chilling. But it's the convincing performances he coaxes from his two young lead actors that invests the film with a whole new level of menace and unease.

Watching "Detained" you will ask yourself why over and over: why is this happening, why are they doing this, why doesn't anyone come and stop them? The questions will be unrelenting until you reach the conclusion that there may not ever be a satisfactory answer.

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Violence and cruelty this shocking has no justification, and so you're left casting about for words like evil and psychopath as though they can protect you from the sheer horror you have just witnessed.

With a subject this shocking it can't be a surprise that the film (and its Oscar shortlisting) have attracted growing controversy. First and foremost from the mother of the real-life James Bulger, whose son was abducted and killed, later leading to the breakdown of her marriage and years of distress.

Bulger’s mother, Denise Fergus was recently interviewed on UK television about the film, where she revealed neither she nor her ex-husband had been told about it before it was made. Now they are asking for a boycott and for a retraction of its Oscar shortlisting.

“I've not watched it - it takes you right back to the day and that's what I don’t want to do anymore,” she told ITV.

“I have three men to look after, I just want to put my time an effort into them and the charity I’m running - I don’t want to keep going back there every time…”

Fergus continued: “In my own personal opinion I think he’s just trying to big his career up. And to do that under someone else’s grief is just unbelievable and unbearable.”

But the controversy has not died down as Oscar nomination night approaches. James' father Ralph has admitted that public interest in the crime has never died down, but on ITV he added, “I accept this is a murder of such magnitude it will always be written about and featured in the news but to make a film so sympathetic to James's killers is devastating.”

Stung by the criticism, Lambe has explained his own motivation for making the film.

“The only way people could make sense of it was by coming to the conclusion that they were evil,” he told Today FM.

“I thought it was such a simplistic answer and I wanted to get a deeper understanding of it.”

Detainment Movie

Detainment Movie

Whether he has succeeded or failed in this attempt will be subjective, but there's no doubting he has made a film that's as harrowing to watch as its subject matter. (Lambe has apologized for not informing the Bulger family before he made the film but in a statement posted on Twitter, he has also denied making it for “financial gain.”)

It is difficult to imagine any dramatic reenactment of this case could do much other than cauterize an already raw wound in the life of the Bulger family, however. That's because they were confronted with the unthinkable and now have to live in its long shadow.

It's a debate worth having if they or the story or indeed the questions it asked are served by this treatment, which contains moments so harrowing they will haunt your imagination for a long time after.

It's not the violence, which is referred to rather than enacted, that is the most unsettling thing about "Detained." It's the utterly persuasive performances given by the young actors. First comes Leon Hughes as a defiant and even contemptuous pint-sized sociopath whose social skills and powers of argument are years ahead of his young age.

It's joltingly strange to watch a child play a skillful game of cat and mouse with a team of police detectives, but that's the true life story and its recreated here from the prosecution transcripts. Then Ely Solan plays the other young assailant, a far more nervous and frightened participant, who caves as completely as the other refuses to crack.

Detainment Movie

Detainment Movie

Both young actors do terrific work, so good they raise a troubling question. Why choose to reenact the details of this case rather than direct a straight-up documentary, thereby leaving yourself open to the charges that inevitably followed?

To succeed on its own terms "Detained" would have to go some way toward answering some of the questions it raises. At the least, it would have to make us understand the family backgrounds, their history, their socioeconomic experiences, their relationship to the wider community and the backlash they faced after the crime.

But none of these issues are really touched upon. Instead, Lambe's camera follows the crime and the aftermath, which is to say from the city streets to the police cells. We see the lead up and the aftermath but I'm not sure how much we can credibly to learn about the two murderous protagonists at the heart of his new short film.

There may be, in the end, no satisfactory way to tackle a story this shocking, one that has baffled observers and even the police for over a quarter of a century now. But before you tackle the why you need to reflect on how you plan to tell such an unnerving story.

Bulger's mother and father have not seen "Detained" and do not plan to, and having watched it I am glad. It's distressing enough for the viewer never mind the surviving relations, and the questions its asks leave a resounding silence in their wake that will be very hard to forget.

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