Five Minutes of Heaven
By Michael McVey
Originally Published in the Irish Emigrant, August 31, 2009
“Trouble with me is I’ve got all the wrong feelings.” – Joe Griffin
There is a moment in Five Minutes of Heaven when the main character, Joe, is presented with a choice: He can open a door and confront his brother’s murderer – a man who waits willingly for him, three decades after committing the act. Or, Joe can exit out another door, avoiding the possibility becoming a murderer himself, but continuing to live with unbearable anger and guilt imparted to him those 30 years ago. And while the plot of the new film Five Minutes of Heaven may be driven by choices like this, the film itself is really about consequences.
The story begins in 1975 Northern Ireland. The film quickly establishes a sense of time and place by using powerful, and violent archival footage. It transitions into a fictional narrative based on a true account – the killing of Catholic teenager Jim Griffin by 16-year-old Protestant Alistair Little. The murder is made all the more shocking, as it is witnessed by Jim’s younger brother, Joe Griffin.
We cut to present day Ireland, where Griffin and Little are grown men, both en route to a television shoot. Little (Liam Neeson) spent 12 years in prison for his crime and, since his release, has been a tireless proponent of a reconciliation program, designed to help those who’ve committed violent crimes take responsibility for their past. Griffin (James Nesbitt) has since married and raised a family, but is deeply scarred by the murder. We sense his bloodlust brimming below the surface. As the TV crew plans to record the meeting, we get more than a “slight” sense that this looming confrontation may not go well.
Guy Hibbert’s script is an interesting construct – the film’s first act deals with real-life events and characters, and then proposes a fictional “what-if” scenario for the confrontation. The real life Griffin and Little have never actually met, though they gave the filmmakers their consent for this fictional narrative. Bringing an outsider’s perspective to the material, German director Oliver Hirschbiegel took particular pains not to judge the politics of the characters, while still acknowledging the complexity of the conflict. We are presented with several questions…Why do we dehumanize our enemies? How does violence affect families? Is primal instinct stronger than principle?
The filmmakers cast actors James Nesbitt and Liam Neeson against their actual backgrounds – Nesbitt was raised in the Coleraine area of Northern Ireland, and Neeson in Ballymena, County Antrim. Both actors create sincere portraits of men dealing with the consequences of violent acts. Nesbitt injects several humorous touches into his moving portrayal of the anxiety-plagued Griffin. Using voice-over, the film’s excellent sound editing weaves in and out of Nesbitt’s internal dialogue, adding extra dimensions to his performance. Neeson’s gravitas are put to good use, particularly during an interview scene (shot in one long take) that reveals deep seated guilt and uncertainty. Both lead actors create believable characterizations, steering the film away from the pitfalls of heavy-handed symbolism.
Five Minutes of Heaven is disciplined in revealing information to the viewer, and with naturalistic lighting and handheld photography, it succeeds in maintaining a realistic tension throughout. Several touches of humor add levity when needed, including a few well placed barbs at the television industry’s “sensitivity” to its subject matter. While Griffin and Little seem destined to confront each other, the outcome’s uncertainty is played for maximum effect.
The film is straightforward and dialogue heavy, but that is not a criticism. The lead performances by Nesbitt and Neeson, the intensity of the scenario, and the insight of the screenplay make for a compelling drama. Without offering any earth-shattering revelations or solutions, Five Minutes of Heaven makes convincing arguments for reconciliation, using the simplest and purest of reasons.