Andrew Garfield as Jack in Boy AITV repeated their 2009 drama Unforgiven last night in advance of the Hollywood remake with Mrs. Brad Pitt herself in the lead role, so it seemed time to bring this post off the back burner. When I started writing it Jon Venables had yet again been in the news, still generating vitriolic hatred on the message boards. With a public e-petition calling on Parliament to debate reintroduction of the death penalty, a frank and thorough examination of justice and what it means to be a civilised society is clearly urgently needed. If recent events have demonstrated anything, it’s that we have let go of our values. As the men and women who fought the war, physically or tactically, the ones who can remember what we lost and the hundreds of thousands who sacrificed their lives, pass away in greater numbers every year, the British sense of justice and the essential characteristic of valuing human life above all else is being diluted and dissoluted. [Technically not a word, I know. Sx] I’d been holding back on the article because I have two examples of the following and was holding out for a third, for a pair does not a trend make. Nevertheless:

Channel 4’s adaptation of Boy A and ITV’s Unforgiven are thematically similar in their contemporary examination of people released from high security prisons after serving a long sentence from a young age. Both deal with the consequences of a youth spent in incarceration and reveal the facts of the original crime episodically across the runtime.

What caught my attention about these programmes was the lone ranger role forced upon the protagonists and the stark juxtaposition between what had been taken from them and what the public still expected. Both dramas force the viewer to question the nature of justice in a free and fair society.

Andrew Garfield’s ‘Jack’ is presented with a whole new personality which he must memorise and rehearse. He is being sent to an anonymous town miles from his former home- a complete reset. He must completely forgo himself and forge a new identity in order to survive. Whoever you may be, that must be a painfully lonely thing to do. He is, in effect, being dispossessed of his life, albeit in order to gain another.

A series of simple yet highly effective moments illustrate the impact of an adolescence spent in incarceration; an emotive dot-to-dot which the empathetic viewer will presumably join up despite of themselves and their political views: Jack’s tears at being presented with a simple gift- the first, we imagine, in a great many years, his inability to order from a menu, overwhelmed by choice and baffled by the promise of such foreign fayre as panini. They call to mind all the increments of development, the social and cultural change of the last ten years, but more than that, all the everyday things that ordinary socioeconomic B-D types learn as a matter of course. How to interact with different kinds of people: shop floor banter, ordering skinny cinnamon mocha lattes, making coffee, or spaghetti Bolognese, programming an iPod, filling in a tax return, buying a car (and road tax and insurance.) The thought of losing all those vital formative years gave me pause.

Can you ever catch up? It must be akin to learning a second language in adulthood. You may eventually be fluent, but it will always be simulated. An untrained adult tongue can never gain native control.

Jack’s ignorance of David Brent, while producing a comic moment, did seem improbable however. We all know prisoners have televisions and internet access, they are not entirely starved of popular culture. Even if he had little personal interest, the other boys would have quoted and imitated, as people do.

Suranne JOnes and Will Mellor in UnforgivenOne of the key differences between the two premises is the question of the debt each character owes society. Child killers, children who are killers, are a preoccupation of modern Britain, one of our most prescient collective anxieties. Ruth is seventeen when she commits her crime and as an ‘adult’ consequently serves twice as long a sentence and is not granted a costly relocation and new identity courtesy of the tax payer.* We don’t find out for some time the extent of ‘Jack’s crime, though the parallels with the aftermath of the Bulger case lead us to the obvious assumptions which are eventually borne out. Ruth’s victim was an adult, an invading police officer whose killing was clearly unpremeditated, so we are faced with a matrix of severity and culpability. The nature of Jack’s crime, though we never learn the details, it would seem is far worse than Ruth’s, yet he is only a boy and a neglected one at that. Ruth’s crime however is borne out of desperation and, it is eventually revealed, not even a last resort or an act of vengeance, but one of sacrifice.  We are pressed to question how much they must relinquish before we can permit them to re-enter society and to what extent they may even do that. Who deserves a second chance? I think the point both parties are trying to make is that we as a society must share some of the guilt and, more than that, we must accept the justice meted out on our behalf. That is the point of having a legal system and an elected government.

BoSuranne Jones as Ruth Slater in Unforgiventh characters are at risk of exposure and retribution, but Jack’s relative juvenility grants him state-funded anonymity at least. He has a handler, on 24 hour call, he has been trained and rehabilitated. She, on the other hand, has a slightly dismissive probation officer, indifferent to learn that Ruth had never been on a train before. Both reveal again and again the minutiae of a life unlived and it seems a tiny tragedy, but is that because we know it’s fiction? That real people haven’t died?

In Unforgiven the brothers furious over the release of their father’s killer are a metaphor for the Daily Mail lynch mobs. Hypothetically I’d agree with them, ‘life’ should mean life, but Ruth and Jack have already given their lives in many senses. Matthew McNulty doesn’t see it that way though- he will decide when she has suffered enough, when she has “lost what he’s lost.” Pains are taken to demonstrate to us the circumstances of her case (eventually), Ruth and her young sister’s abandonment by their recently deceased and deeply indebted father. A teenager, left to manage a house and raise a small child alone, assailed on all sides by authority and threatened with incomprehensible legalese, of course the State should have come to their aid, we see that. Presumably the dead copper’s family were compensated and probably awarded a pension of some fashion, but Bro wouldn’t recognise how he was provided for, where the girls were not. Her actions undo the facts of her existence. In life there always seems to be a stark dichotomy between those who cry ‘no excuse’ to any crime and those who try to explain away every misdeed and affront by pointing the perpetrator’s upbringing and socioeconomic standing.

Andrew Garfield in Boy AThere is significance to the casting; Andrew Garfield, a soft-voiced, almost simple-sounding slip of a thing, is clearly on screen to inspire the protective instinct. Maternal types, who would tear anyone apart with their bare hands who dared pose a threat to their children, simply want to give him a hug and a good meal. This hesitant, skinny man-child is far more sympathetic, more of a poor wee thing, than his younger counterpart. Perhaps an oversight in casting, I don’t know, but someone like Jack doesn’t seem capable of any great atrocity, the feral boy of the flashbacks does though. Is it fear of vigilante reprisal that so unmans Jack? He is convinced his partner in crime and only real friend was murdered by fellow inmates.

It seems important that both characters are essentially alone in the world. They have a state-appointed point of contact, tentative relationships with colleagues, but the One Person in the World they truly loved and could be understood by, has been taken from them, whether by guilt, vengeance or middle class righteousness. Both dramas seen to be suggesting that the punishments last forever, even after release. So, in that sense, Life is life, and I think it has to be better than putting people to death, but is it fair? We’re yet to produce a satisfactory answer.


*  We know Maxine Carr was granted a new identity at our expense after serving less than two years for her part in helping Ian Huntley cover up the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. That was a much higher profile crime of course, but she clearly had less right to protection- there was no motive or personal stake in that crime, just evil, or for her part a love of evil.

  1. MerseyJim says:

    I think calling Maxine Carr ‘evil’ is strong to say the least. Criminally stupid more like. All she did was lie to the police – she never had any part in the crime and indeed, wasn’t even present. Her mistake was believing Huntley.

    • Solo says:

      Okay,she didn’t commit the crime, but I cannot believe she had no suspicions. If your rapist boyfriend with a history of underage girlfriends rings you up and says- The biggest manhunt in British history is underway, seeking two little girls we both know who have disappeared, I need you to lie to the police and the media. But I’m innocent, honest!- and you go along with it, that’s more than stupidity. I will amend ‘evil’ though, that can be reserved for him. Whether it’s true or not- Huntley has claimed that Carr played a much larger role than she was convicted for and it was her who told him what to do with the girls’ bodies.

      That aside, what did you think of the two programmes? From your comment I’d guess you could see your way to sympathy for convicts?

  2. MerseyJim says:

    Sympathy might be pushing it. I have some compassion – particularly for Boy A (Jack). Mainly for the same reason I have compassion for Venables/Thompson – I think the criminal mens rea of a child is limited at best. Then there are the mitigating circumstances of the other case. Interesting points you raise about it really being a life for a life for Jack – his co-defendent dies (the film doesn’t make clear whether it is suicide or murder) and his past life is effectively extinguished. I wonder how we can expect people to come out of prison rehabilitated when in many cases they will feel persecuted and hounded for eternity.

    • Solo says:

      That is the big question. If the public could be trusted to accept that justice has been served then released convicts in high profile cases could keep their identity, but that clearly isn’t possible and in both programmes the protagonists suffer after being exposed. I don’t think there was ever really any other outcome for Jack, much as we want him to succeed.

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