More Than Just Film
As if in a dream, Detainment (Vincent Lambe) opens with two ten-year old boys set loose in a sleepy shopping centre. The camera glides, the boys run and tumble in slow motion, and, in a moment of subtle foreshadowing, toys are stolen and destroyed. As if in a dream, an air of impending dread pervades all.
This is intercut with the two boys being taken in custody, their finger-prints and photographs are taken and cassettes are loaded into tape recorders for the interviews.
Delivering an emotional gut-punch that I can still feel, the opening sequence concludes with the boys stopping, exchanging conspiratorial glances and then staring at a toddler, standing horribly alone.
And at last it hits me. I feel the ground fall away as my mind floods and stalls with memories of the nationwide trauma inflicted a quarter of a century ago. Old wounds tear open and I fight the urge to burst into tears.
I literally had no idea Detainment was about the James Bulger case, the controversy that currently surrounds the film was yet to break.
It was April 2018 and, as a member of the Winchester Film Festival screening panel (the folks who spend their spare time watching all of the festival’s submissions), it caught me several hundred films into that year’s competition. None of the last dozen or so had rocked me and I was beginning to wonder if my luck had dried up. Oh well, push on to the next one.
Following the opening credits, we embark upon the interviews that provide the film with its structure. The initial bravado of the two suspects, Jon Venables (Ely Solan) and Robert Thompson (Leon Hughes), falters in the face of calm but focused questioning and their excuses quickly come apart, leaving them blaming each other for the abduction, torture and murder of two-year old James Bulger (Caleb Mason). The intensity of these scenes underlines what remarkable source material the cast are working from, the tapes of the actual interviews, as well as the astonishing performances from Solan and Hughes as well as their parents and the detectives that comprise the rest of the cast (Killian Sheridan is particularly good as Jon Venables’ father).
Detainment is in many ways a beautiful piece of filmmaking, far greater than the sum of its controversy and outstanding performances. It addresses its topic soberly and with a meditative air of detachment but it is still a profoundly upsetting experience. We are never shown any violence being committed against James but the numerous shots of him being led by Jon and Robert across a park, through the streets of Bootle and onto the railway tracks are incredibly hard to watch, especially on the numerous occasions passers-by almost intervene.
Unlike other dramas about child abduction, we don’t at any point cut away to James’s grieving parents. The film after all is a dramatisation of the police interviews so this is understandable, and yet in their absence I found myself searching for a character to pin my sympathy upon. At first I tried the parents of the killers but as the sheer horror of what their children did becomes clear, they seem to slip into catatonic states of shock, disgust and guilt. Then I looked to the killers themselves.
As their alibis crumble, Venables breaks down in tears and look small, lost and alone. We can’t hide from the fact that these two killers, branded ‘evil’ by the media and later tried and convicted as adults, are primary school children barely able to comprehend what they have done. Tellingly, when Thompson is told that James’s remains are being held at a hospital, he asks if they are going to make him better. As the interviews progress though the abhorrent nature of their crimes against James are revealed, making any sympathy impossible. In perhaps the film’s most chilling moment, a title card states that the information gained from a final interview has never been made public and was deemed too distressing to be played in court. The mind positively reels.
My search for a sympathetic character ended without success and perhaps this is the point. Everyone in this tale carries a degree of guilt for a crime which twenty-six years later we are still no closer to understanding. In a brave attempt to approach it from a different angle, Detainment poses uncomfortable questions of its viewers, questions which offer no easy answers.
I was left with mixed feelings from this first viewing. The abiding emotion of the film is loss; of life, innocence and reason, leaving an unquenchable emptiness at the heart of three families, a community and a county. It is deeply affecting stuff. And yet witnessing such a remarkable piece of cinema was undoubtedly thrilling. I hurriedly contacted other members of the screening panel and we all agreed that this was the one, a film that had to be seen, a film that Winchester Film Festival had to screen.
For further information on Winchester Film Festival’s UK premiere of Detainment in November 2018 and the opinions of people present, please click here.