Published on January 19th, 2009 | by Padraic Coffey0
Five Minutes of Heaven (2009)
Gary Mitchell, the acclaimed Belfast playwright of a sternly loyalist background, once decreed that “if you judged Northern Ireland purely on the basis of films you would think there are no Protestants here”. Certainly, this is consistent with many of the more successful movies that depict the Troubles on screen, namely Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game or Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father. Conversely, when Protestants are depicted – more specifically militant adherents of the unionist position – they are often caricatured in an unfavourable light, likely to appease ill-informed Irish-Americans or left-wing British cinemagoers. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Five Minutes of Heaven challenges the stereotype of the mindless loyalist psychopath, as perpetuated by Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s Nothing Personal or Marc Evans’ Resurrection Man. It also departs from the constant cycle of period pieces – of which 2012’s Shadow Dancer is another addition – by way of its contemporary setting. As such, it is one of the better films about Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
In the film’s opening prologue, effectively a short film itself inspired by fact, we see 17-year old Alistair Little, a resident of Lurgan, carry out his first assignment as a budding member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, by shooting and killing Catholic gasworks employee Joe Griffin. Unbeknownst to him, Joe’s younger sibling Jim witnesses the murder. The film then shifts to the present day, over three decades later, when Jim (James Nesbitt) and Alistair (Liam Neeson) are to be reunited on a television show based around reconciliation. Alistair, having served time in prison, is now a councillor for other conflicted zones around the world. The clearly still bitter and grief-stricken Jim has reservations about the proposed meeting.
Hirschbiegel, a German, may seem an unlikely choice to direct such a film, yet his previous work on the likes of Downfall, which depicted Adolf Hitler’s last hours on earth, proves he is no proponent of sensationalism. Five Minutes of Heaven‘s theatrical run was mostly on the festival circuit, with a screening on BBC Two prior to its American release, and thus it is the feel of a television mini-series rather than a full-blown feature, albeit with the world-famous Neeson in one of the central roles. This understated approach does not detract from the film, however. Nesbitt’s performance teeters close to melodramatic on occasion, but may be even better than Neeson’s. Jim is an extremely emotionally-damaged character, whose stream-of-consciousness inner monologues are masked by incessant, sometimes inappropriate quipping to those he interacts with publicly.
If there is a glaring narrative flaw in Five Minutes of Heaven, it is that we are expected to believe Jim’s hostility towards Alistair stems not only from the murder of his brother, but from the fact that his mother has levelled the blame for Joe’s death at him. Since Jim was 11-years-old when the killing took place, it seems deeply implausible his mother would expect him to intervene in preventing his older brother from being shot. This plot contrivance is all the more egregious because of its needlessness. To witness the death of a sibling at the hands of a masked gunman is reason enough to bear a grudge for several years, not least when the gunman subsequently reforms as a professional peacemaker.
Setting aside this dramatic error, there is much that separates Five Minutes of Heaven from other Northern Ireland-set films. Not least is the way it examines the legacy of the conflict. We learn of another loyalist released “after the Good Friday Agreement”, and infer that Neeson’s character may have been pardoned on similar grounds. Pairing this with Nesbitt’s fury poses questions about the morality behind the 1998 Peace Accord, which allowed hundreds of imprisoned paramilitaries to walk free. Parallels can be drawn between Neeson’s character, residing alone in a Belfast apartment, and Billy Giles, a former UVF member who committed suicide, years after having shot and killed a Catholic workmate.
Five Minutes of Heaven may never accumulate the reputation of some of the more popular films about Northern Ireland, but it is a thoroughly well-acted and important work, which shows the devastating effects of just one of the Troubles’ 3,500+ deaths.