A former Belfast assassin and his victim’s brother are to meet 30 years later for post-Troubles “truth and reconciliation.” Thanks to powerful performances by Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, what is basically a film about two men trying talk around or out of their pain becomes a gripping study of guilt, grief, and rage.
What makes Five Minutes of Heaven stand out from other recent films about the Irish Troubles (including the solid thriller 50 Dead Men Walking, still available for rental in the redboxes) is its focus on the human cause and cost of the Protestant-Catholic conflict that raged in Northern Ireland in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Not just the shattering of loved ones’ lives and the lasting weight of grief and guilt, but also the reasons young men carried out assassination and terrorism against innocents.
Five Minutes of Heaven is from Oliver Hirschbiegel (director of the brilliant Downfall, the Hitler in His Bunker film that spawned so many YouTube spoofs) and is based in part on a true story. In 1975, Alistair Little, a 17-year-old Protestant youth in Belfast, murdered Jim Griffin, an innocent Catholic man of 19. Little carried out the hit for two reasons: to send a warning message to the IRA on behalf of the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force, but mostly to prove himself a Big Man in the UVF and his community. The victim’s 11-year-old brother Joe witnessed the murder and then the decades of grief and blame that wracked his family.
Hirschbiegel’s film and Guy Hibbert’s screenplay take that tragic event and ask the fictional question, what if the two men met 30-some years later as part of a post-Troubles truth and reconciliation project? Hibbert, a playwright, had interviewed both Little and Griffin separately–spurred by the real Joe Griffin’s statement that he could never meet Little without killing him and using the interviews as a bedrock, the writer set out to imagine just such an encounter.
Liam Neeson plays the adult Alistair Little, and when we first see him, in the back of a car on the way to a (somewhat exploitive) TV taping of his first meeting with Griffin, he’s very much suave, cool Liam Neeson, wearing a sharp suit and his usual air of weary strength. The film’s version of Alistair seems to have made a later life of going around apologizing for his actions (on top of served prison time) and helping others deal with their guilt over the crimes they committed decades ago. He’s also testifying as to how easily young men’s heads can be filled with patriotic and religious fervor and fueled by the natural machismo and stupidity of reckless kids out to “be someone.” And how those acts can haunt a person the rest of his or her life.
Alistair is experienced with these sorts of reconciliation meetings, but as he gets closer to facing Joe Griffin, we see his calm surface is brittle—he’s living a walking-dead existance of unending sadness, unsure how he can ever in good conscience let himself not be consumed by guilt. Neeson wears all this with a shattering naturalness—it seems the actor’s face comes “pre-haunted.” One of our finest actors, Neeson always betrays so much underneath his trademark stillness. Granted, he may not always be in great movies, but he’s almost always great in them.
By contrast, the film’s adult Joe Griffin is a twitching bundle of denial as played with riveting nervous desperation by James Nesbitt (who also starred in Paul Greengrass’s 2002 Troubles film Bloody Sunday). Blamed all his life by his mother for “letting” his older brother die, Joe stammers out awkward attempts at humor, trying to hold at bay the confused, murderous rage he holds for Little. (The film’s title refers to Joe’s dream of getting just five minutes alone with his brother’s killer.) Nesbitt’s layering of Griffin’s pain and anger under a surface buffoonery makes for a performance every bit as compelling as Neeson’s.
And aside from a gripping flashback to the night of the murder, that’s all Five Minutes of Heaven is: two immensely talented actors playing two men talking about whether or not this sort of reconciliation is even possible or helpful. (The 1975 scenes are perfectly, painfully nuanced; with Mark Davidson/David playing young Alistair as a gangling, spotty teenager trying to be a man but becoming a monster instead.)
Five Minutes of Heaven can come off preachy at points and at other times may move too slowly for some tastes—it certainly has the feeling of a filmed play. But sometimes that simple formula is all you need: a strong, fascinating topic and a couple great actors to tackle it.