We Love… 25 Years of Irish Film – Five Minutes of Heaven

Illustration: Adeline Pericart

So Film Ireland magazine is 25 years old. Over those years Ireland has produced some great films which have been successful both here and abroad – not to mention nabbing a few Oscars® along the way. And so over the next couple of weeks Film Ireland‘s army of cinema dwellers look back over the last 25 years and recall their favourite Irish films in the latest installment of…

We Love…

25 Years of Irish Film


Five Minutes of Heaven

(Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2009)

‘… features stunning performances by two of the finest actors ever to emerge from the island of Ireland—and thus by extension, the planet Earth …’

Niall Dunne

Can a BBC-produced film directed by a German fella named Hirschbiegel be considered ‘Irish’? For the sake of this installment of the ‘We Love…’ series, let’s just say it can. Best known for the brilliant and controversial 2004 film Downfall, which dramatized the last days Hitler in Berlin, Oliver Hirschbiegel certainly did his Irish homework for 2009’s Five Minutes of Heaven, an unsentimental examination of the difficulties of forgiveness centered on the murder of a Catholic man in Lurgan during the Troubles. The film has won multiple international prizes, including the World Cinema direction and screenwriting awards at Sundance. It also features stunning performances by two of the finest actors ever to emerge from the island of Ireland—and thus by extension, the planet Earth.

Hirschbiegel based his film on the real-life experiences of Alistair Little, a former UVF hitman, and Joe Griffin, who—as a young boy in 1975—witnessed the killing of his older brother Jim at the hands of Little. Both Little, who served 13 years for the murder and now works internationally as a conflict resolution specialist, and Griffin were interviewed at length for the film, but have never met. Five Minutes imagines a rendezvous between the two men more than 30 years after the murder, and the tension the film creates in the build up to this attempted rapprochement is what makes it so special.

The film opens with a reenactment of Jim Griffin’s murder by a teenage Little and his friends. The scenes are vivid and credible, accomplished using a cast of relative unknowns. Fast-forward to 2008, and middle-aged Joe Griffin and Alistair Little—played by the very well known James Nesbitt and Liam Neeson, respectively—have agreed to meet face-to-face for the first time on a TV show exploring the possibility of reconciliation.

Nesbitt portrays Joe as a chain-smoking bundle of nerves, permanently scarred by his brother’s death, resentful of Little’s reformation and his success as a world-travelled counselor to men of violence. He plays along with the TV producers and their Oprah-inspired desires to capture ‘the truth’ about his feelings on tape. But we find out quickly enough that he’s not there to provide Little with a final act in his ‘journey towards a magnificent redemption.’ Revenge, not reconciliation, will be Joe’s five minutes of heaven.

Neeson’s Little appears to be the polar opposite of Joe: all quiet and calm and self knowing. He speaks eloquently of his past crime, his shame, and his current mission to prevent other young men from falling in with gangs and terrorist groups. And somehow he knows that Joe’s not there to make peace, but he wants to see him nonetheless—we presume in order to help Joe move on.

“Time will heal they say… what everybody says about everything. The years just get heavier.Why don’t they tell you that? Nobody tells you that!”

And so the pieces are set in play, and the tension mounts as the meeting draws closer and closer. Thanks to Hirschbiegel’s expert documentary -style direction, Guy Hibbert’s intelligent (and at times very funny) script, and the commitment of Nesbitt and Neeson to their characters, that tension never lets up either—even when it’s revealed that Little is not a tower of strength at all but a sad, broken man, consumed by guilt, and Joe’s resolve to kill him starts to break.

There are no soap opera moments in Five Minutes. When the two finally meet—alone, far away from prying eyes—the confrontation is messy and nearly devoid of catharsis. In the end, it’s a glance of unconditional love from his daughter that helps Joe start the healing process. The final moment of resolution between Griffin and Little (a three-second mobile phone call) is about as un-Oprah as you can get.

Five Minutes is an impressive achievement and certainly one of my favorite Irish films in recent memory. By focusing on the deeply human tragedies and struggles of both protagonists, it avoids getting bogged down in partisanship or political name-calling—always a danger when tackling such complex subject matter. The film is not without its flaws. For instance, the bit about Joe’s mother placing the blame entirely on him for not doing anything to save Jim on that fateful night doesn’t ring true. It’s also a little implausible that no one in the TV crew notices Joe carrying around a machete in his underpants. Ultimately, however, the amazing performances of Nesbitt and Neeson help you to forget the imperfections and drive home the point that there are no easy fixes on the road to reconciliation.

Niall Dunne

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