MPI // 2009 // 89 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // April 27th, 2010
"For me to talk about the man I have become, you need to know about the man I was." -- Alistair Little
The man that Alistair Little was, was not so special in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The Catholics were being discriminated against, and they created paramilitary organizations (a.k.a. the IRA) to redress their grievances. The IRA engaged in various violent activities, including individual murders and bombings. In response, the Protestant Northern Irish created their own paramilitary organization, the Ulster Volunteer Force. Alistair Little joined the UVF to avenge the death of his friend's father. He was fourteen. Three years later he shot a Catholic man in cold blood. He spent over a decade in Long Kesh and now works in humanitarian relief, using his own history of violence as an example. Five Minutes of Heaven takes Little's story as the basic premise and adds a fictional meeting between Little and the brother of the man he shot to tell a story about violence and reconciliation. Thanks to some amazing acting and its historical premise, the film succeeds in asking some very searching questions, even if it comes up with somewhat tired answers.
It's been twenty-five years since Alistair Little (Liam Neeson, Michael Collins) shot his brother, but Joe Griffen (James Nesbitt, Bloody Sunday) hasn't been able to forget. It's especially on his mind now because he's been asked by the producers of One on One to meet his brother's killer on camera. For Joe, it's not a question of reconciliation, but of revenge.
Alistair Little, both the historical man and the character in Five Minutes of Heaven, is the perfect model of what a reformed murderer should be. He's haunted constantly by his crimes, not in a melodramatic renting-of-clothing-gnashing-of-teeth kind of way, but in a way that shows he's fully aware of the gravity of his situation. After prison and years of work in humanitarian aid he knows that what he did was entirely rational from his boyhood perspective, and the way to solve the problem is not to escalate the violence, but to educate those at risk.
Which makes him really admirable to the average citizens like me, but to Joe Griffen in Five Minutes of Heaven, it makes him that much easier to hate. Little's conversion to a life of service is certainly admirable, but the insights that make his service so valuable were only reached because Griffen lost his brother. He understandably wants revenge, but the Alistair Little he will meet for a TV show is not the same Alistair Little who shot his brother twenty-five years earlier.
It's this central problem of reconciliation and revenge that Five Minutes of Heaven dramatizes. The fictional TV show meeting provides a convenient place to combine these two perspectives. The audience is completely meant to sympathize with Joe Griffen and his desire for revenge, but also to understand that Little is a changed man who has both renounced violence and seeks to end it elsewhere. The central message is that victims need to let go of the past, while the perpetrators should never allow themselves to forget.
The message isn't a strikingly new one, and the film's fictional construct can occasionally be a bit strained. Luckily, two very solid leads keep that from happening. Kudos should first go to the cast of youths who dramatize the historical murder. They're a bunch of young boys and they do an amazing job capturing an adolescent mixture of bravado and fear. Once the film switches to present day, however, it's all about Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt. Liam, with his authentic Northern Irish accent, is perfectly cast. His eyes speak of almost nothing but remorse, while his measured speech shows how much he does to control the violence from his past. I came to the film because of his involvement, and little did I suspect that James Nesbitt was going to blow him off the screen. It's not that Neeson is bad; far from it. No, it's that Nesbitt is stunningly perfect. The story tells us that Joe Griffen's mother blamed the young boy for not doing something to stop Little from killing his brother, her other son. Even though he was only eleven, and there was nothing he could have done, Joe has grown up neurotic and guilty. Nesbitt captures this sense in everything he does, from holding a cigarette to his outbursts of rapid speech. It's a gripping performance, and the film is worth watching just for it.
As a DVD, Five Minutes of Heaven is sleek but pretty strong. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is solid, preserving the slightly desaturated look of the film. Detail is generally high, with just a hint of grain here and there to give a filmlike appearance. The surround audio is mixed a little oddly, with dialogue occasionally a bit low and some of the violence a bit high, but overall it's very listenable. Subtitles are included for those who have trouble deciphering accents. Extras include the film's trailer, and a short EPK-style behind-the-scenes featurette that includes on-set footage and some interviews with the cast and crew.
I wonder about the necessity of fictionalizing so much of this story. Little's tale is interesting enough as it is, and the film's only really odd moment comes directly out of the fact that the film has fictionalized this relationship. That odd moment is a small outbreak of violence at the film's end; it feels overdone in light of the rest of the film and doesn't actually add to the film's message.
The brief extras make it sound as if the project had both Little's and Griffen's blessing, and they're certainly missed in the extras on this disc. I don't know about Griffen, but Little has been completely willing to discuss his past and it would have been great to get a strong on-camera interview or commentary out of him. As it is, this disc feels a mite incomplete because of the slim extras.
There are so many stories about the Troubles that focus on the IRA and its operations. Five Minutes of Heaven shows some of the other side, but, more importantly, it tells a story about how hard it is to forgive and how impossible it is to forget. Although not a perfect film (nor a perfect DVD), Five Minutes of Heaven raises a lot of interesting questions.
It's not quite Five Minutes of Heaven, but it is almost 90 minutes of excellent drama. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R