Five Minutes of Heaven is a film made in Northern Ireland, with a local cast, local crew, local story, and yet speaks beyond our borders into international situations. It’s a fictional story but with a real beginning based on an incident from Northern Ireland’s more recent past.
A young UVF gang setting out for their first hit. Part lacking in confidence; part over confident. Taking the life of a Catholic worker in a Lurgan firm. Targeted in retaliation for a republican threat against a Protestant worker. A chance for young Alistair Little (played by Mark Davison) to feel “10 feet tall” as his masters celebrate the action?
The shooter and the shooting is unexpectedly witnessed by the victim’s young brother Joe (Kevin O'Neill) playing outside the house. And so “two people are inextricably linked for the rest of their lives”.
Coming only weeks after the publication of the Report of the Consultative Group on the Past, it’s a film that explores the emotions of the different types of victims that conflict in Northern Ireland created.
Thirty years on from the murder, Liam Neeson plays Alistair Little, the UVF gunman who having served twelve years in prison is a world-travelled speaker helping perpetrators come to terms with their actions, and seeking to convince people not to join the organisations that will inevitably lead to taking up arms. Yet he can’t lose his own baggage as easily as the advice slips out his mouth to other ex-paramilitaries.
Jimmy Nesbitt plays Joe Griffen who has outlived much of the rest of his family (early deaths and suicide) and yet carries their blame for not stopping or disrupting his brother’s murder. Given the opportunity to meet his brother’s killer, what will he do? Reconciliation? Revenge? Can it ever be over between them?
The emotion of the two lead characters runs high. Alistair appears calm on the outside, but inside he is empty and broken. Joe finds it hard to abate his anger, with violent mood swings, manic ranting and sweating.
The film’s sound track could be summarised as a series of bass rumbles, and that lack of distraction somehow allows the characters’ emotions to take centre stage. There are few stereotypes in the film. Instead complicated people unhappy in their own skin. It’s pretty gritty, so if you catch the film on TV or in a cinema, expect a couple of violent scenes (including a wonderfully auditorily graphic fight).
In the introductions to the film’s premiere in Belfast tonight, it was described as “in and off Northern Ireland, reflective of this place”. Somehow it sits well alongside Hunger - another film supported by Northern Ireland Screen - charting some more aspects of the conflict, looking into the hearts and minds of more victims. At yet, despite the local portrayal, there is a story of two sides creating pain and living with the consequences that will echo around the world.
Guy Hibbert’s screenplay tells the story in an unusual way. It's dark and sinister, yet has its light moments too, and I occasionally found myself laughing at quite inappropriate moments! If there’s a sticking point in the dialogue, there’s a moment where Alistair puts forward that young Muslims need to hear his message to prevent them rushing into organisations and falling into conflict. To me it felt too simple and jarred with the rest of the film.
But it's a film that points out that while some are looking for truth, others may want to tell their truth too. But getting an opportunity to tell your truth isn't guaranteed. At least not in front of the people who are so dearly connected to the events in question. Cheap truth doesn't exist.
Overall, it’s quite minimally directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. A colour palette of black and white and brown. And having picked up two awards at this year’s Sundance Festival, the film should appear on BBC Northern Ireland in the next month or so, before a network showing on BBC Two. Sounds like it will also get a theatrical release in cinemas overseas. Update - showing on BBC Two on Sunday 5 April and available on iPlayer for a week afterwards.