The BBC-produced Five Minutes of Heaven is a drama in two parts. The first is historical, portraying an actual murder from 1975 in conflict-ridden Northern Ireland. The second part, which is the bulk of the film, jumps forward 33 years and gives a fictional account of what happens to two men still affected by that murder.

The 1975 sequence drops viewers into the midst of "the Troubles," the late 20th-century period of violence in and around Northern Ireland between Protestant unionists—wanting closer ties with Great Britain—and Catholic Irish nationalists. Five Minutes doesn't dwell on the religious aspect of this conflict. Still, the casting of the leads is symbolic, even if incidentally: James Nesbitt, a Protestant, plays a Catholic, and Liam Neeson, a Catholic, plays a Protestant.

Liam Neeson as Alistair Little

Liam Neeson as Alistair Little

After an opening montage of Troubles-related news footage, we step into the home of teenager Alistair Little. The camera roams through ordinary domesticity before finding Little upstairs. He might as well be getting ready for school, his turntable spinning as he gets dressed and leans toward the mirror to worry over a pimple.

But the blemish is soon well hidden, when Little pulls on a ski mask that evening to kill. The victim is a local Catholic, Jim Griffin. It's Little's first hit job as a recruit of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), which is at war with the Irish Republican Army (IRA). It's a moment of triumph for Little—for the time being.

Also at the scene of the crime is Jim's younger brother Joe, just a boy at the time. He happens to have a clear view of his brother Jim as he is shot, and it's a grisly sight. Little almost leaves without even noticing Joe, but when he does, their eyes lock—Joe cowering and Little cold.

Now fast forward to the present day, which is when Five Minutes departs from the real-life stories of Joe and Little. Both characters (Nesbitt as Joe, Neeson as Little) are being chauffeured to a reunion they both fear. A TV documentary program has arranged for them to meet for the first time since that night in 1975—on camera. The program purportedly wants to know: "truth and reconciliation—is it possible?"

James Nesbitt as Joe Griffin

James Nesbitt as Joe Griffin

As soon as Joe arrives at the set, however, it's clear that the program is less interested in "truth and reconciliation"than it is in the potential for a Hallmark moment. He's clearly agitated, making more than one trip to the smoking balcony. One crew member, Vika (Anamaria Marinca), gives Joe a sympathetic ear during the pre-filming preparations, and she suspects that reconciliation is the last thing on Joe's mind. But even she doesn't know that he's packing a knife—a ticket to what he calls his "five minutes of heaven."

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One of Joe and Vika's conversations gives a glimpse into the conflicted nature of resentment. Vika mentions that she visited Little once to help make arrangements for the documentary. Joe explodes with nervous curiosity, peppering her with questions about Little's home, his family (or lack thereof), and Little himself. He needs to know more about the man who turned his life upside down. Yet the more he hears, the more human Little becomes to him—how, according to Vika, Little's home is "cold," "empty" and "not a happy place," but how he seemed a "nice man" who was worried for Joe with respect to this reunion. None of this is what Joe wants to hear.

Little shows up separately and, though concerned, appears much more composed than Joe. After 12 years in prison he has not only reformed but, eventually, became a sought-after expert in conflict resolution. The longest single shot in Five Minutes is when, while Joe is still upstairs getting ready, Little delivers (for the benefit of the documentary program) an eloquent monologue on the terrorist mentality. During his speech, the viewer's perspective gradually drifts around the set until it merges with the close-up angle of the camera operated by the TV crew. In that moment, as he fills the entire screen, Little seems strong, wise, and full of gravity.

Mark Davison as young Alistair

Mark Davison as young Alistair

Yet only moments later, when Joe is finally on his way down for the meeting, we see that Little's hand, reaching for a water bottle, is shaking. And when—for various reasons—Joe never makes it through the door, we see the full extent of Little's felt guilt. "'Time will heal,' they say," intones Neeson, as only Neeson can. "But the years just get heavier. Why don't they tell you that?"

Neeson, the one A-lister present, is commanding in his role, but Nesbitt has even more to work with in Joe's character. He projects the desperation of a man who, like Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo, has let his feelings fester for years. Joe's emotions are more confused than Edmond's, though, as he is caught between hatred and false guilt. "The trouble with me," he says, "is I've got all the wrong feelings." Thus, he never actively seeks revenge, but the opportunity finds him.

Joe and Little's characters do eventually reunite before the end of the film, and one irony is that this meeting—far from any TV cameras—is much more dramatic than anything the documentary makers could have hoped to stage. Of course all of it is staged, because Five Minutes is itself a film, not real life, and the scene's setting and action are in fact a little too contrived. But the dialogue and camera-work are dead-on, as they are throughout the film. None of the angst is blunted. Their one-sided conversation ends with a powerful close-up of Joe, facing away from Little and shakily lighting another cigarette.

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The two men meet

The two men meet

Suffice it to say, there are no apologies or handshakes. Five Minutes (unlike the TV documentary invented for the story) purposefully shirks any naive optimism—a reflection, no doubt, of the three years screenwriter Guy Hibbert spent in consultation (separately) with the real-life Joe and Little. "[This film] is not about truth and reconciliation," Five Minutes producer Stephen Wright tells the Belfast Telegraph. "It is not about finding easy answers."Actually, Five Minutes is about reconciliation, but it probes the gray areas, raising more questions than answers. What does forgiveness really look like? Is it always possible? Necessary?

There is a resolution in the end, but it's a resolution that doesn't cheat the years of baggage carried by these men. The real-life Joe and Little have still never met since that night in 1975. In a broken world with broken people like this, peace is an elusive thing.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Does Joe eventually forgive Little? Is it clear?

  2. Can a victim find peace without being directly reconciled to his or her offender?

  3. What Scriptures did Joe need to hear during those 33 years after his brother's murder?

  4. How do we nurture resentment in our everyday lives?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Five Minutes of Heaven is unrated; it originally aired on television on BBC Two. A couple of scenes are highly suspenseful. There are one or two disturbing images in the opening news footage about the Troubles and two scenes of graphic violence, one in which someone is shot to death. Also, the language is at an R-rated level.

Five Minutes of Heaven
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
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Mpaa Rating
Directed By
Oliver Hirschbiegel
Run Time
1 hour 29 minutes
Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt, Anamaria Marinca
Theatre Release
February 27, 2009 by IFC Films
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