Under the Radar: Five Minutes of Heaven

Revenge or Reconciliation? The Historical Conflict and Psychological Struggle within Five Minutes of Heaven

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Under the Radar is a column by Strange Harbors that explores hidden gems in pop culture. Whether it's a little seen film, an underappreciated television show, or a forgotten comic, there's a lot of quality stuff out there that goes relatively unnoticed. This column's job is to shine an oft-needed light on these overlooked, but ultimately worthwhile, works. This week, we'll be taking a look at Five Minutes of Heaven, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s under-seen film that tracks two men from different sides of the Irish political divide.

“The man shot my brother three times in the head. The man is having [a wonderful life]. So what should I do? Do I shake his hand, or do I kill him?”

“Well, killing him wouldn’t be good for him.”

“For sure, that!”

“But it wouldn’t good for you either.”

“Not good for me? My five minutes of heaven…how would that not be good for me?”

Aesop once said that “he who plots to hurt another often hurts himself.” But when anger and (more importantly) sadness is bottled up to an unimaginable extent, rationale slips away. The person who is pursuing revenge will lock eyes with the individual whom they wish to hurt, rush at them with unfettered rage, and find comfort in their pain. This is especially true when the revenge such a person desires is due to incomprehensible loss. And when decades of historical conflict within one’s country are added onto this violent equation, the final result is equal parts brutality and sorrow.

One film wherein this type of clash takes place is Five Minutes of Heaven, which first premiered at Sundance in January of 2009. There, it won a directing award for Oliver Hirschbiegel (known for also directing the Oscar-nominated Downfall in 2004), as well as a screenwriting award for Guy Hibbert. It was then broadcast as a television film for BBC Two in April 2009, after which it had its international release, pulling in an alarmingly low amount of box office return (less than $100,000). It is unknown why exactly this was the case. However, for a film with this insightful of a narrative, these complex themes, and these remarkable performances from the monumental Irish actors Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, it’s worth a second look. But what exactly occurs in this film? And more importantly, what do these events mean for the two characters whom these actors respectively play: Alistair Little and Joe Griffin? The duality of the two - the way they are both similar to, and also contrast with one another - is an integral part of the movie. Another key factor of the movie’s events is Irish history, and how it bears a footprint on the psychological issues of both people.

In order to fully understand Five Minutes of Heaven, one must first know a bit of history about “The Troubles”—an ethno-nationalist conflict that occurred in Northern Ireland in the late 20th century. The British came to Ireland in the 1100s and, by 1542, completely subjugated the population and incorporated it into the U.K. Simply put, they wrought havoc on the Irish people: they confiscated Irish land and left the peasants to live on the rocks, where they were barely able to grow food for themselves. Then, when the peasants starved due to living on bad farmland, the English took that to be proof that the the Irish (in particular, Irish Catholics) were inferior. More and more English, mainly Protestants, became concentrated in the northern part of Ireland. Repeated Irish nationalist movements sprung up throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The English, in response, continued to put down - and kill - these nationalists.

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“In order to fully understand Five Minutes of Heaven, one must first know a bit of history about ‘The Troubles’ - an ethno-nationalist conflict that occurred in Northern Ireland in the late 20th century.”

One year before the U.S. entered World War I on England’s side to “make the world safe for democracy,” a group of Irish nationalists led the “Easter Rebellion” of 1916.  They took over parts of Dublin, but eventually the rebellion fizzled out. The nationalists were caught and shot by the British. This execution of the Easter Rebellion leaders turned out to be a last straw of sorts. England finally took Irish nationalism seriously, but that ironically was the beginning of the Troubles. The “solution,” as in India and Palestine (two other places once under British rule), was partition. Northern Ireland was left to be part of the U.K., while southern Ireland was given independence as the Republic of Ireland.

Now we move closer into the universe of Five Minutes of Heaven. Not all Irish supported this partition. This led to a bloody civil war in Northern Ireland, because it was not only part of the U.K, but also was discriminatory to the minority—but still very sizable—Catholic population. Many became members of paramilitary groups like the IRA (Irish Republican Army) or, like Neeson’s character, Alistair, is in the film, the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force). Over the years, terrorism mounted. Bombings and violent attacks grew more rampant. And families with no dog in the fight, so to speak, saw their members killed due to the Catholic versus Protestant conflict. (As of the 2011 census, 48% of Northern Ireland’s population is Protestant. Less than 5% of the Republic of Ireland’s population, by comparison, is Protestant.)

Now, if I may diverge just slightly, I was lucky enough to study at college under the visiting professor Glenn Patterson, an Irish author and screenwriter who currently teaches at Queen’s University in Belfast. Glenn wrote the BAFTA-nominated film “Good Vibrations” (2013). The events of “Good Vibrations” also occur in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. When I told Glenn years ago that I’d seen “Five Minutes of Heaven,” he replied simply, “It’s good that you did.” Glenn actually had a few of the same actors in Five Minutes of Heaven work on his own film. One of them, Richard Dormer (who plays Michael, the head TV producer trying to arrange the broadcast event), you may recognize as having played Beric Dondarrion on “Game of Thrones.” Though they are two very different types of movies, there are similar themes portrayed in both films, as well as characters facing similar struggles related to these historical events. You’ll find the same types of subjects and conflicts in many Irish films about these times. My main point is that the Troubles have had a reverberating effect on Irish history, particularly for the people of Northern Ireland. These effects are felt even to this day.

In the film, the brother of Nesbitt’s character, James, is one of the aforementioned victims related to the terrorism and violence of the Troubles. His family is Catholic. Alistair, a Protestant and member the UVF, is directed to kill him due to the conflict between both religious groups in their country. Alistair heads over to the Griffins’ home one night with his pistol, passes Joe by in the street, and then shoots James through the window while he’s sitting and watching television. He runs away, while Joe watches James die in front of him. Joe is later blamed by his mother for “doing nothing,” even though he is just eight years old. 

The events that occur in Five Minutes of Heaven circulate around a meeting that’s being broadcast 33 years after this dreadful incident. It’s for a program on Irish TV called “One on One.” This meeting is scheduled to be between the two aforementioned main characters. This is all for the purposes, as the television producers say, of “truth and reconciliation.” The first of the characters is the perpetrator: Alistair Little, a past member of an Irish paramilitary group who - after serving twelve years in prison for the murder - has changed his ways. The second character is the victim: Joe Griffin, a man who is, and has been, under great psychological duress (to put it mildly).

Let’s first begin with Alistair. The film opens with an expository intertitle: “An estimated 3720 people were killed as a result of the conflict in Northern Ireland. This film is a fiction inspired by two men who bear the legacy of one of these killings.” To say that the two characters, Alistair and Joe, “bear the legacy” and weight of one of these killings is an understatement. We then hear Alistair begin his narration, starting with a quote from him: “For me to talk about the man I have become, you need to know about the man I was.” He discusses his country’s past, and what led him to be such a person: “There were riots in the streets every week, petrol bombs every day…fathers and brothers of friends were being killed in the streets, and the feeling was: we have to do something.” He, like many in Northern Ireland, was surrounded by violence. He reacted by joining the aforementioned UVF organization. And indeed, “the man he was” was a seventeen year-old member of a group that committed terrorist attacks in the name of “freeing Ireland.” That’s ostensibly why he shot and killed Joe’s brother when he was a teenager. Yet as he says later to the TV broadcast in one of the most powerful moments of the film, it wasn’t about that: 

 
 

It was about feeling “excited” at committing an act that would get him praise from his friends, that he “couldn’t wait to get his congratulations” and be proudly “walked into the bar” by his group’s leader. (It was his story, the Protestants’, that mattered - not “their story,” the Catholics’.) “I would’ve shot anyone for that,” Alistair says.

But in this same monologue, Alistair deeply laments the choices he made in the past, and this type of thinking. In one of the most cogent quotes of the movie, Alistair says: “What society must do is to stop people from getting to the point where they join the group. Because when you get to that point, it’s too late. No one’s gonna stop you. No one’s gonna change your mind. And once you’re in, you will do anything. You will killanyone on the other side, because it’s ‘right’ to do it. Once your man has joined thegroup, society has lost him. And what he needs to hear are voices on his own sidestopping him before he goes in. There were no voices on my side, no one on my side of the town, not in my state. No one was telling me anything, other than that killing is right. It was only in prison when I heard that other voice.” Alistair goes on further about how there are people in other groups, in other countries, and in other cultures around the world who could take heed of this advice. He mentions how this unfortunate state of thinking is regrettably still occurring, to the point of causing mass violence to this very day. In the end, these acts don’t solve anything for anyone. No political solutions are created, no moral resolutions are reached. All that happens is a temporary moment of joy—“five minutes of heaven”—attained through another’s pain or death. And at that point, “it’s too late” for the perpetrator. They’re already lost on a psychological level. And on a matter-of-fact level, they can become a target for the other side. They can go to prison, become a subject of interest for security forces, and can even be killed.

Moving on to the character of Joe, we learn through the discussions that Joe has with Vika - a production assistant for “One on One,” played by Anamaria Marinca - that he has one clear intention for showing up to this broadcast: to kill Alistair with the knife he’s secretly brought, and get his revenge. However, we also learn more in these discussions about the psychological damage that has accumulated within the characters of Alistair and Joe over the years. Joe assumes that Alistair, due to his recent fame from being a consultant on matters of crime and conflict, has been living a charmed life.

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“In Joe’s personal conflict, will he cross that final moral line that Alistair himself did decades ago? Does Alistair’s ‘story’ matter to Joe as well, or only his own?”

However, in his discussion with Vika, Joe learns that this is not the case. Vika tells Joe that when she visited Alistair at his apartment to deliver something for pre-production, she saw that the place was cold. Empty. “Not a home. Not a happy place.” Joe is surprised by this, but is even more surprised by Vika’s comments on Alistair as a person. “He seems very sad,” Vika says. “Like he couldn’t forgive himself for what he’s done to you…A broken man.” We can see the gears turning in Joe’s head in response. Up to this point, he must have imagined Alistair as some Disney-like villain, one hundred percent evil and deserving to be killed without mercy. “His feelings? They are just right, just perfect,” Joe says. But now a complex issue is thrown into that equation. He’s in pain himself? He actually feels remorse for what he did? That makes things much more complicated. He even exclaims “Fuck!” in frustration before putting his cigarette out and marching back inside, in order to make his final decision on whether or not to go through with his plan to kill Alistair. In Joe’s personal conflict, will he cross that final moral line that Alistair himself did decades ago? Does Alistair’s “story” matter to Joe as well, or only his own?

Well, let’s delve deeper into the story of Joe then. It’s learned that he at least partly agreed to the “One on One” program not due to any deep analytical reasoning on his part, or because he truly wanted to meet Alistair—much less find out why Alistair decided to murder his brother in the first place. During his conversation with Vika, Joe tells her about when one of the main producers for the program came to pitch the idea to him. He mocks the more complex themes that were described to him in the meeting, even joking about the theme of “reconciliation.” (“What is that, people coming out of their graves? ‘No,’ she said, ‘that’s resurrection!’”)  What gets him to agree to this program is something that is frankly sorrowful. “The thing is, it wasn’t the way she was looking and talking,” he says. “And I wasn’t really listening to anything she was telling me. It’s just that…she showed me a little kindness.” Through James Nesbitt’s expert delivery with this line, we can imagine all the heartbreak and psychological pain that he’s had to live through since his brother’s death, as well as the unfair blame his mother (who is never seen or heard from again in the film) put on him after the fact. That a production manager from a TV program got him to agree to meet the man who murdered his brother just by showing “a little kindness” speaks volumes.

It’s ironic that, while the producers are talking about how formally and stately they want the TV program to go, that they don’t realize the psychological trauma that both main characters are in. Joe’s mind in particular is in shambles. He, most notably, veers in and out mid-sentence between narration (in his head to the audience), and stating his words out loud to other characters. This begins in adult Joe’s first scene, when he’s being driven to the broadcast stage. After flashing back to the room where his brother was killed, he remembers a cat’s painting that got covered in blood from the gunshot. In narration he says, “Never knew why that picture of a cat was there. And the other one…don’t know what happened to that one. I mean…”

Then in the same sentence, Joe states out loud, “What the fuck?” This startles the driver, and Joe doesn’t even realize that he’s doing this. Talking out loud without noticing, psychological researchers have found, can be a sign of severe anxiety or depression. It’s not hard to see why, then, that Joe would be acting this way. While being a movie dealing with Irish history and complex characters, Five Minutes of Heaven also delves into psychological issues and their effects on suffering people. Joe is searching his revenge out of anger, sure. But as with most plans for vengeance, it is mainly out of hurt. One of the key things he says to Vika in one of their conversations is: “The trouble with me is, I’ve got all the wrong feelings.” We see - and hear - the hardship that Joe is going through in almost everything he utters. He’s in unimaginable pain, which after decades has been stirred up into fury. Even Alistair knows this, and almost predicts this to the TV producers in a separate scene: “He’s going to be very angry…and that anger could go in any direction.” Ironically, Alistair—the man who killed Joe’s brother—now cares for Joe even more than the producers do (even if this may be mostly out of his expert analysis than mere compassion). “I realize you have a program to make,” he tells them, “but what’s happening to him has to come first…you have to make sure he doesn’t come to any harm,” Alistair says. Yet he doesn’t realize the very harm Joe has planned for him.

So what exactly happens after this? Will the program move forward? Does Joe continue with his plan for revenge, or do he and Alistair reconcile? It would be inappropriate for me to spoil the rest of the movie for you - especially with how much movies have been spoiled these days. As a film that didn’t get its proper look at its original release, Five Minutes of Heaven deserves to have its artistry taken in unblemished. With the way it portrays its characters’ psychologies and the manner in which Northern Ireland’s history has impacted them, along with the extraordinary performances from its two main actors, there really is no other film quite like it.

Paul Adler has written content in various fields - from entertainment, to technology, to education. He currently works as a teacher and content writer for a tutoring agency in South Jersey, and is in the middle of crafting his first short story collection. Paul's been a fan of film and theater since the first time his mom took him to see Cabaret as a kid. He thinks There Will Be Blood should've won Best Picture, but nothing's perfect.