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Murder, in Shades of Gray, in Boy A

Britain's infamous James Bulger case comes back, with nuance

LOS ANGELES—Where can Batman and Boy A possibly converge? At the intersection of Michael Caine. The actor may be the hardest-working compulsive in show business, but he knows enough to put director John Crowley on hold when a Dark Knight calls. Because Caine's absence delayed Crowley's Is Anybody There?, it made the Cork native available to helm the redemption drama Boy A a year earlier than the UK's Channel 4 had planned. "We were up and running within a month," Crowley said. "Sometimes, speed is all that you need."

Sometimes, what you need is a set of brass ones. Boy A, after all, indicts one of the baser instincts of human nature: That when faced with the unspeakable, mankind's default reaction is a Manichean black and white—see: war on terror; Islamo-fascists; Seinfeld's assessment of Newman ("pure evil").

It's those absolutes that get portrayed as cancerous in Crowley's Boy A. As it opens, the film shows subject Jack Burridge (young Brit actor Andrew Garfield) teetering into the light after a lengthy prison stint, his adjustment to the outside world akin to a just-ambulatory baby lurching across the living room. What has he done? Why is his working-class Virgil, the social worker Terry (Peter Mullan), so cautious, and so cautionary?

Not a boy, not quite a man:  Andrew Garfield in Boy A
TWC
Not a boy, not quite a man: Andrew Garfield in Boy A

The film's bigger question, though, is whether society really believes in an ethos of forgiveness and rehabilitation, or whether we prefer looking at a 10-year-old murderer the same way we prefer looking at Osama bin Laden. The moral dilemma on the part of the Boy A viewer is how to reconcile the decency of Jack with the crime he has committed.

"One of the things that came out of that case here, and is very clearly spelled out in the film, is the notion of branding those kids as purely evil," the director says. Crowley, reached in London, is referring to the notorious case of James Bulger, the two-year-old toddler abducted and murdered by two 10-year-old boys in 1993. Although Boy A is based on the novel by Jonathan Trigell—and the novel was inspired by another case entirely—it is the Bulger case that the movie invokes. ("In the history of England in the last 20 years," Crowley says, "there's been nothing else like it.") Garfield, interviewed here in Los Angeles, said that while "there's no such thing as pure evil," were he James Bulger's parents and saw the film, "I'd want to kill whoever made it."  

But the response when Boy A did play in Britain was overwhelmingly positive— "across the board," said Garfield. "The one criticism is that we weren't bold enough in showing the murder, which is bollocks. The majority of reactions were like: 'My God, I hadn't thought of it this way; I need to reread the Jimmy Bulger stuff.' " The "stuff" that ran in the English tabloids was as hysterical and incendiary as the coverage of any case has ever been. What Garfield perceived after the movie aired was the readers of those same papers reassessing.

"On blogs and message boards, I'd see what people were writing," he says. "And there were people writing in a way that made it clear they read the Sun or the Mirror—I know they read those papers, but they were writing in a very articulate way: 'I don't see many movies, I don't watch much stuff, but . . . it made me think abut the subject in a different way.' "

At 24, Garfield barely remembers the Bulger case, and had no knowledge of the notorious Leopold-and-Loeb murder, which, since the 1920s, has held a similarly morbid fascination for Americans: two young men who calculatedly murdered a younger boy, although, in that instance, the killers were older and far more privileged than the felons of Boy A. In both cases, class had much to do with perception.

"There's something so disengaging about that," Garfield says of the affluent Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, "but something immediately sympathetic about someone from a lower upbringing— the struggle." Dramatically, he said, "people get behind it more. I'm also much more attracted to those roles. I'm not really caring right now about privileged people with high-class problems."

Jack, on the other hand, faces all the same hassles of any Anglo-American post-adolescent: Released from jail, he has to find a home, find a job, find love, have sex for the first time.

"And everyone goes through that," Garfield says with a smile. "Except the whole jail thing."

 
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