A quite brilliant, gripping drama. And I cried.
Ray (Billy Barratt) and his 23 year-old brother Nathan (James Tarpey) are arrested after stabbing their mother’s partner. Whatever the circumstances that have led a child to kill, the law is clear: the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10, and at 12 years old, Ray must stand trial in an adult court.
Based on a true story and told in two time frames, the film follows both the events that led up to the murder and the unfolding drama of the trial, taking us inside a young boy’s experience of the legal system and asking powerful questions about responsibility and redemption.
in England and Wales, 10 is the minimum age of criminal responsibility – meaning a 10-year-old accused of killing someone can be tried like an adult in a Crown Court in front of a jury, rather than in the youth courts.
A few concessions are made based on their young age, including their first name being used, lawyers not having to wear wigs and gowns, and being allowed to sit close to their lawyer or an appropriate adult.
But can a child that young understand what it means to commit a murder? Are they responsible for their actions? And what happens to them later in life if you convict them as an adult before they even become a teenager?
Those questions are at the heart of 12-year-old Ray’s story, which is told in new BBC drama Responsible Child – loosely based on a real-life case.
Ray, who loves playing video games, learning about space and watching reality shows, is on trial – alongside his big brother, Nathan, 21 – for a brutal murder.
After their abusive step-dad narrowly escapes prison for attacking Nathan with an axe, he returns to the overcrowded family home and starts being abusive to their mum. One night, the brothers go downstairs and stab him more than 60 times while he sleeps on the sofa.
It’s an attack so frenzied they almost cut his head off.
The story is based on that of Jerome and Joshua Ellis, who were 14 and 23 when they also killed their step-dad.
The preparation for Ray’s trial plays out in the present. We flash back repeatedly to the events that led him there, from the “ordinary” fear the boys live with under Scott’s rule, to Scott’s armed attack on Nathan, for which he is charged with attempted murder – only for charges to be dropped and Scott to return to the home more furious than ever.
It is, to put it mildly, an untenable situation. The flashback scenes throb with misery and dread. As Scott, Shaun Dingwall perfectly captures the bitter toxicity of a certain kind of man, slashing and burning his way through a pathetic life, thriving on the terror he causes in others.
The alternating of this timeline with the other dissipates the emotional tension and narrative torque, especially as this film’s court scenes are thin, dry things and the fine actors in them – including Michelle Fairley as the barrister Kerry and Stephen Campbell Moore as the child psychologist Dr Keaton – are given little to work with. She is there mostly to deliver snippets of legalese and look pained; he to look frustrated and avow on the stand that a child’s brain is less developed than an adult’s.
The lack of detail (Ray’s team reacts with horror, for example, when Nathan decides not to give evidence, but we are not told what it means, although it is clearly not good; the failure of social services is presented as a given) raises distracting questions about the process when we should be focusing on Ray.
There are clunky moments scattered about, too, when the pedagogic intent overrides the dramatic. “If you were 30 years old with your mind,” Kerry tells Ray at one point, “you’d be judged not fit to stand trial. But you’re not, Ray.” It’s a point made purely for the viewer’s benefit – for the character to utter it in that context serves no purpose other than to burden her 12-year-old client with further appreciation of the relentless absurdity and injustice of the world.
But if the first hour slows the pace and keeps the viewer at a slight distance, the last half-hour pulls things together – and us in. The interrogation of Ray on the stand, interspersed with memories from the night of the murder, followed by the two timelines collapsing after the trial as Ray suffers nightmares in his cell, brings everything home. Debbie Honeywood, as the boys’ mother, gives a pitch-perfect portrayal of a woman numbed, her selfhood utterly corroded after years of suffering and abuse from Scott and – we suspect – Ray and Nathan’s alcoholic father. The brief scene between her and Ray after the verdict is truly harrowing.
It works, overall, as drama. Will it work as agitprop? Will it prompt movement on the enduring injustice of judging children by the same standards as adults in trials? Ray, one of his team points out, is still years away from being legally able to buy a hamster. Who is responsible for this travesty? And who will take responsibility for change?
CREDITATION: BBC, Lucy Mangan (The Guardian)