Five Minutes of Heaven
Synopsis: A tense thriller inspired by two extraordinary real lives, which explores the challenges of coming to terms with Northern Ireland’s troubled past. Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1975. Alistair Little, 16, is the leader of a British loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force cell, and he and his gang are given the go ahead to kill a young Catholic man, James Griffin, as a reprisal and a warning to others. When the hit is carried out, Joe Griffin - the 11-year old little brother of the target - watches the tragic events, in horror. The impact of the murder destroyed the lives of Joe and his family, who could not come to terms with the loss.30 years later and each man has lived in dread of encountering the other. A TV programme has organised a live-to-air meeting of Alistair and Joe, but for the two men, truth and reconciliation is a double-edged sword. Alistair (Neeson), who spent 12 years in prison for his crime, and is now a famous, globetrotting expert on individual conflict resolution, feels he dare not ask forgiveness, while Joe (Nesbitt), feels incapable of giving it. But when they do eventually meet, something extraordinary happens - something that will change their lives forever.
Tense tale of guilt and atonement in Northern Ireland.
In 1975, a 17-year-old member of the Northern Ireland Protestant militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force, shot and killed a 19-year-old Catholic through his front window while the victim’s kid brother was playing with a soccer ball just metres away on the street. More than 30 years later, producers of a documentary tried to bring together the killer, Alistair Little, and Jim Griffin, the man he had traumatised. Still scarred by memories of that awful event, Griffin refused.
Five Minutes of Heaven is a fictional account of what may have happened if the two had finally confronted each other. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and scripted by playwright Guy Hibbert, it’s a searing psychological study of two tortured men who each carry a burden of terrible guilt, featuring superb performances by Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt.
Via flashbacks, we watch how Neeson’s Little methodically planned the killing of the shipyard worker who had refused to yield his job to a Protestant. After serving 12 years in jail, he now roams the globe providing therapy sessions for people who have murdered a spouse, child, stranger or neighbour.
Griffin’s father died eight months later, of a broken heart, and his other brother succumbed to an overdose. Jim got married and had two daughters but was forever blamed by his mother, who irrationally accused him of not doing anything to prevent his brother’s death.
The tension rises as the two men are separately chauffeured to a castle where a BBC reality show is to be filmed. Griffin alarms one of his minders by calmly asking a rhetorical question, “Do I shake his hand or do I kill him?” The latter course of action, he suggests, would afford him “my five minutes of heaven.”
All these years later, while Little can’t justify his heinous act, he does try to rationalise it. To kill a Catholic “wasn’t the wrong thing for me to do,” he says matter-of-factly, looking down the barrel of the camera before Griffin entered the room. “It was just, the fair, the good thing to do; it was easy.” Distressingly, he admits that if he’d known Jim was the victim’s brother, then aged 11, he’d have shot him too.
Cynically, the producers clearly view the painful reunion as an opportunity for both men to experience “truth and reconciliation,” but it doesn‘t go as planned. When the confrontation finally happens, it’s a little overblown and stretches credulity, but that detracts only marginally from the reward of watching a powerful drama which raises fascinating questions about guilt and atonement.
Nesbitt gives an astonishing performance as a man who harbours a long-held desire for revenge. He’s a boiling cauldron of rage, grief, nerves and resentment.
Neeson is equally effective as a character haunted by his own demons; thanks to the actor’s skill, you’re likely to feel some sympathy for a former murderer who might be classed as rehabilitated but is mortally wounded.
Hirschbiegel, the German filmmaker who brilliantly entered Hitler's bunker with Downfall, again shows his flair for mixing real and imaginary events. Hibbert based his screenplay on conversations with the two men, adding to the authenticity.
Watch Films Online
Films on SBS TV
SBS Film Guide to...
Celebrate Australian filmmaking with this home-grown season. Starts May 25.
A month of movies with an edge. Saturday nights in April.