- 28 Jan 19
Having directed the Oscar-nominated short Detainment, Irish filmmaker Vincent Lambe should be in high spirits. But the controversial nature of the film – which deals with the murder of James Bulger – has led to a storm of manufactured tabloid outrage.
Vincent Lambe sounds weary as he speaks to Hot Press from his home in the Dublin suburb of Rathgar. His latest short film, Detainment, has just been released and has received widespread critical praise from those who’ve seen it. But it has also been met with a torrent of outrage from those who haven’t, but who’ve read the tabloid condemnation: a paradigm, you might say, of life in 2019.
The film explores the highly sensitive subject of the murder of James Bulger. It is based on real-life transcripts of conversations between police officers in the English town of Kirby, and the 10-year-old boys Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who were found to have tortured and killed the two-year-old Bulger. Why did Vincent decide to tackle this difficult subject?
“I was 12 when it happened,” he explains, “and I grew up hearing about the murder. It was always on my mind. I could never understand why these two 10-year-old boys committed such an horrific crime. I was always told that they were evil, but I wanted, as an adult, to get a better understanding of it. Initially, I was just interested in the case. Then I got the interview transcripts and realised: it’s one of those stories. You think you know it well, but there was so much that I didn’t know.
“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.”
It focuses almost wholly on police transcripts.
“In terms of a 30-minute drama, there’s a lot to condense. There were over 20 hours of transcripts, so really we only get a brief glance at what happened in those interviews. But everything is entirely factual. It’s almost verbatim, apart from Jon Venables’ confession scene, which there isn’t a transcript for. But that was based on having watched interviews with the detectives.”
Nominated for an Academy Award, it has nonetheless received overwhelmingly negative publicity in the UK press. 81,000 people have signed a petition calling for the film to be banned from Oscar consideration. Much of this was sparked when the Bulger family went public with the fact that they weren’t contacted about the making of it.
“I never meant any disrespect at all by not asking the Bulger family,” Vincent sighs. “In hindsight, I’m sorry that we didn’t let them know sooner, but in terms of asking for permission from them – it would’ve made it a different film. I wanted to meet Denise [Bulger] to explain our reasons for making the film, and also why we didn’t get in touch sooner, but when we were making the film, no one expected it to get this level of attention.
“Because we wanted to make a film that was impartial, and entirely fact-based, we decided not to contact members of any of the families involved, and we relied solely on the factual material, which has been available for 25 years. If we had contacted one of the families, there would have been pressure to tell it the way they wanted it told. Contacting the families wouldn’t change what’s in the transcripts, but would most likely change what’s in the film, and when you do that you’re telling a version of the truth. But I did put a lot of thought into ensuring that it was respectful to the victim and to the Bulger family.”
How has he dealt with the backlash? “I always expected some backlash,” he admits, “but I never expected people to start saying things about the film which are just untrue. People are outraged, based on misinformation that’s been published in the tabloids, but (sighs) I think if people had just seen the film, the people who are outraged now would have a completely different opinion. But they’ve been told what to think about the film before they’ve seen it. That’s very hard to deal with.
“There’s lots of documentaries that get slammed in the same way. The difference is, they’ll go out: they’ll be broadcast, and there’s no question of what’s in it and what’s not in it, because everyone will have seen it. But with this, there’s people calling for a boycott before they’ve seen it. I hope that when people do see it, they’ll recognise that it was responsibly made and that it’s an important film.”
In truth, Detainment is well cast, well directed and, above all, respectful to the sensitivities of the case. The fact that it made the Oscar list alongside shorts that were hailed at the likes of the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals, shows just how highly the critics have rated it.
“It genuinely took my breath away,” Vincent says of when he got news of the Oscar nod. But for now, 2019 has been dominated with the challenge of managing the PR nightmare that has been foisted on him. Here’s to an Oscar win then...