Five Minutes of Heaven

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Five Minutes of Heaven (2009) directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel

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Despite its title, Hirschbiegel’s film offers anything but light-hearted entertainment. Instead, it is a powerful and thought-provoking exploration of the questions of forgiveness, restorative justice, and revenge. The film intertwines fictional and factual material. In the first part, it recreates the historical killing 19-year-old Jim Griffin by 17-year-old Alistair Little in 1975 and in the second part it imagines a fictional meeting between the killer and the victim’s younger brother, Joe.

Liam Neelson plays Alistair Little, a repentant former member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, who had served his prison sentence and now wants to meet Joe Griffin (James Nesbitt)—the brother of a 19-year-old Belfast dock worker and Roman Catholic he killed in 1975. Only a little boy then, Joe had witnessed his brother’s killing. The horror images of that night continue to haunt him and his life has been defined by his search for revenge and justice, even if of a limited kind. Now, over 30 years later, the two men are set up to meet each other on the camera for the first time as a part of a reconciliation project. Yet, however well staged, this meeting is anything but predictable. Having served his prison sentence, repentant Little might be seeking reconciliation and forgiveness but Joe’s motivations for attending are somewhat different—he is carrying a knife and intends to kill Little. As the meeting is about to take place, Griffins becomes agitated, demands the cameras to be removed and leaves. Producer’s pleas aside, one’s confrontation with the past cannot happen on demand. After this nonmeeting, Little approaches Griffins and offers to meet again. The latter demands that they meet at the scene of crime, Griffin’s old house which is now boarded up and abandoned. The choice is anything but accidental. There is no change of heart for Griffin. Still intent on killing Little, he hopes that he can finally realize his plan and avenge his brother death. When they do finally meet, Griffin attacks Little attempting to stab him, the two men fight and fall through a window onto the street. Covered in dust, bruised and exhausted, only now can they finally face each other. Little explains why he killed Griffin’s older brother and asks Joe to stop living for the vengeance and instead to start living for his family and kids. The final scenes of the film picture Griffin attending a group therapy session where he bursts into tears and admits that now he only wants to be a good father to his children. Soon after he calls Little and announces ‘we’re done.’

The seemingly simple resolution the film suggests is rendered more complex by the real story behind the film’s screenplay written by Guy Hibbert. Hibbert based his script on the conversations he had with the real Griffin and Little. Yet, although they both contributed to the film, they refused appear in it with Griffin vowing to kill Little. The film explores the dramatic potential of this (im)possible meeting and imagines what the confrontation between the two men could look like. In this context, whether the closing scene is indeed a cathartic moment, one which announces the possibility of a new life, becomes less certain. The story behind the film’s script undermines the viewers’ initial sense of comfort and release. We are reminded that the meeting that we witnessed was only fictional; the real confrontation never took, and maybe never will take place.