Responsible Child: A 12-year-old boy commits a brutal murder

Review: This BBC drama shows how a child can become a killer – and be tried as an adult

“You’d think the boy had fallen off a cloud,” a solicitor reports over the phone to a barrister early in Responsible Child (BBC Two, Monday, 9pm). “But the murder is as brutal as I’ve ever seen.”

This seems like a brisk but accurate characterisation. The boy in question is the 12-year-old Rafael (Billy Barratt), a name better suited to a Renaissance cherub, which may be why he prefers to go by Ray. Blond, with wide, watchful eyes, he is first filmed from over his shoulder, in spliced scenes that have him walking warily into a courtroom or staggering blood-spattered through a field, escorted by menacing music. Is he angel or devil?

A title puts the predicament clearly: under a 1963 British law, children as young as 10 are tried for murder as adults in England and Wales, a situation that is roundly considered absurd in Sean Buckley’s alarming drama but in which they all helplessly find themselves.

We're inclined to reach a quick verdict on every adult who enters the frame: a succession of the kindly, the threatening, and the pitiably unreliable

In the dead of night, while he slept, Ray and his 23-year-old brother, Nathan, hacked their mother’s abusive partner to death with a hatchet. There is, of course, more to it than that, involving a ladder of abuse and wild panic, but the boys do not dispute the facts. Whatever about guilt, youthful innocence does not seem like a credible plea.

Based on a true story, and directed by Nick Holt as though in stunned account, mostly through Ray’s perspective, Responsible Child presents a round-up of adults through a child’s eyes.

In another token of English law, an anonymous, outwardly sympathetic figure referred to as an “appropriate adult” enters Ray’s cell, only to be shooed away by his court-appointed solicitor, the more conspiratorial Pete (Owen McDonnell), who counsels distrust: anything Ray says might be used against him.

Throughout, then, we’re inclined to reach a quick verdict on every adult who enters the frame: a succession of the kindly (a sympathetic teacher; and explaining psychologists), the threatening (Shaun Dingwall’s abusive Scott; the prosecution lawyer) and the pitiably unreliable (social services; Ray’s beaten mother; his panic-stricken brother, Nathan, tried separately).

The film's political purpose can seem blunt, bookended by stern titles about British law and its recalcitrance in honouring UN rights obligations

Holt and Buckley make their point most subtly here: how is a child to be considered an adult when navigating the unstable adult world is so puzzling?

Unfortunately, they tend to tell us this more often than showing it: you can’t buy a hamster until you’re 14, but you can be tried for murder at 12, someone says with a sigh. Were Ray a 30-year-old man with the mind of a 12-year-old he would not be fit to stand trial, his barrister, Kerry (Michelle Fairley), also says with a sigh, while also urging self-reliance at every turn.

This can make the film’s political purpose seem blunt, bookended by stern titles about British law and its recalcitrance in honouring UN rights obligations.

It also seems to put Ray’s story at its service, like an instructive parable, interweaving the sorrowful trial with nervy flashbacks of the events leading up to the night in question, a method that uses Ray’s PTSD to inform its fractured structure. That may be emotionally effective, but is it responsible?

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