Film Eye

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Reviews, Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 17

Seventeen-year-old UVF man Alastair Little (Mark Davison, back seat to the right) is driven to the scene of the crime in Lurgan in October 1975.

Seventeen-year-old UVF man Alastair Little (Mark Davison, back seat to the right) is driven to the scene of the crime in Lurgan in October 1975.

Five minutes of heaven
5 April 2009, BBC2
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
by John Gibney

On 29 October 1975 James Griffin, a twenty-year-old Catholic stonecutter from Lurgan, was shot dead by the UVF. The Griffin family home was on the edge of a loyalist area, and at approximately 7.30pm a car containing four masked men pulled up outside the house. One of them, Alastair Little, got out, went to a front window and fired six shots into the living-room. The killing was witnessed by Griffin’s younger brother, Joseph, and Griffin was found by his father and sister. Despite the relatively quick response of the police and emergency services, James Griffin died before reaching the hospital.
In May 1976 four men from Lurgan were convicted of his murder. Three of them, including Little, were under eighteen. The arguments made in their defence—that they had only intended to scare Griffin for threatening a Protestant, or that they had not known that any form of shooting was the objective—were dismissed by the judge, and three of the four were sentenced to ten years in prison (their youth was a mitigating factor). Two were also convicted of membership of the UVF, and Little, who later admitted to having felt no remorse at the time, received twelve years for possession of a revolver and ammunition.
The above details are culled from the encyclopedic Lost lives (1999), a harrowing work that explicitly set out to provide the details of each killing of the ‘Troubles’ in as unemotive and factual a manner as possible. The facts were horrific enough to speak for themselves, but, equally, each

Eleven-year-old Joseph Griffin (Kevin O’Neill) witnesses the murder of his brother James.

Eleven-year-old Joseph Griffin (Kevin O’Neill) witnesses the murder of his brother James.

killing had other human consequences. While the authors explicitly highlighted the fact that each killing had incalculable consequences in terms of the suffering of those who lost family and friends, the book’s terms of reference meant that their experiences could only be hinted at. In the absence of any equivalent account of what they endured, speculation is perhaps inevitable. This lay at the heart of Five minutes of heaven. Directed by Otto Hirschbiegel (who previously, and controversially, dealt with the last days of Hitler in Downfall), the film took the very real murder of James Griffin as its basis, before jumping forward to an imaginary future in which the killer, the former UVF man Alastair Little, and the witness, the victim’s brother Joseph Griffin, might conceivably come face to face.
The screenwriter, Guy Hibbert, developed this concept with the cooperation of both men, neither of whom ever met and each of whom was consulted as the script was developed. The scenario unfolds as follows. Having met fleetingly on the night of James Griffin’s murder, Little (Liam Neeson) and Joseph Griffin (James Nesbitt) are to be brought face to face in a documentary about post-conflict reconciliation in Northern Ireland. But the somewhat cynical desire of the programme-makers for a happy ending is complicated by the fact that Griffin, whose life has been scarred by what he witnessed, turns up intending to kill Little. The simplicity of a revenge drama is avoided by the fact that Little himself has also been scarred by what he did. And matters unfold from there. Suffice it to say that in this pared-down production, leached of colour, there is no happy reconciliation between the two, as both men are forced to pick up the pieces of their lives and attempt to carry on.

The perpetrators burn out the get-away car.

The perpetrators burn out the get-away car.

Lauded at the Sundance Film Festival, amongst others, Five minutes of heaven attracted some negative reviews on the grounds that it seemed to offer a somewhat trite and lightweight view of its subject. This seems unfair (especially in the light of what usually passes for dramatic treatments of the ‘Troubles’). For the most part it succeeds as a drama, centred very deliberately on its two protaganists; given the subject-matter, the occasional hint of melodrama can perhaps be forgiven. It is a film in which there is much to admire, with Neeson’s affecting portrait of the haunted and guilt-stricken killer being especially powerful. This naturally raises the fraught issue of moral equivalence, as recently seen in the controversy over compensation payments to the families of all those killed in the conflict, regardless of whether they were active participants or innocent victims. The fact remains that those who carried out the crimes of the ‘Troubles’ chose to do so: their victims had no such luxury. But many of those who carried out appalling crimes and were imprisoned for them later displayed a level of responsibility and leadership that was often sadly lacking on the part of supposedly democratic politicians. It is also fair to say that, in a terrible irony, the activities of at least some former loyalist and republican paramilitaries helped to ensure that the ‘Troubles’ were not extended to yet another generation, and that in doing so they helped to save lives that might otherwise have been lost. The real Alastair Little apparently now works in the often maligned areas of conflict resolution and reconciliation. But while Neeson’s depiction of Little hinted at the damage wreaked on the perpetrators of such crimes, one of the closing scenes saw Joe Griffin break down as he attended counselling for the first time in his life (in reality, Joe Griffin has apparently begun to attend counselling in the aftermath of the production). At the heart of Five minutes of heaven was the suffering of a bereaved family; the suffering of the man who had bereaved them

The victim, Joseph Griffin (James Nesbitt, left), and the perpetrator, Alastair Little (Liam Neeson, right), finally come face to face.

The victim, Joseph Griffin (James Nesbitt, left), and the perpetrator, Alastair Little (Liam Neeson, right), finally come face to face.

was—rightly, in this viewer’s opinion—a secondary consideration. The primetime screening of the film (and its later repeat) was followed by a simple and stark notice that served to remind viewers of the existence of the other victims: a BBC helpline for those viewers affected by the issues it had raised. The enduring human scars of the conflict, mental as well as physical, will not be overcome as easily as some commentators might assume. Regardless of its merits or otherwise, Five minutes of heaven deserves great credit for serving as a reminder of the existence of categories of people whose voices were all too often marginalised in the course of the ‘peace process’: the bereaved, the maimed and the survivors. HI

John Gibney is an IRCHSS Government of Ireland fellow at the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies, NUI Galway.

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