Contradictions; or, The Languages of Violence and Peace in the film Five Minutes of Heaven

Exorcising the Troubles of Northern Ireland

by Daniel Garrett Volume 15, Issue 9 / September 2011 12 minutes (2988 words)

Five Minutes of Heaven, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
Screenplay by Guy Hibbert
Cinematographer Ruairi O’Brien
Production Designer Mark Lowry
Editor Hans Funck
Starring: Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt
Pathe/BBC/Northern Ireland Screen and IFC, 2009

It is always a gift to see a film that gives a small, intimate view of a world we do not know and a subject we consider significant, but not all gifts are equal or welcomed: and it was impossible for me not to think of that while viewing the film Five Minutes of Heaven, which focuses on the results of a longstanding political conflict in Northern Ireland and a very young man’s decision to participate in his culture’s civil struggle—a decision made in masculine pride and solidarity as well as willful stupidity—by deciding to kill another man. The skinny young man (actor Mark Davison as Alistair) stands in front of a mirror, looking at his own face, worried about pimples, and listening to music, before taking out a box that has his well-preserved childhood toys and, beneath them, a wrapped gun at the box’s bottom. It is a time in which the nightly news carries footage of armed troops, firebombs, and funerals; and outside children play games, imitating the gunplay they see on television; and here a young man plans real violence. The film, in which the action begins in the mid-1970s and moves to the first decade of the twenty-first century, a movement from contemplated and executed violence to attempted reconciliation, is an artistic work that reminds the viewer that the conflict between Irish Catholics and Protestants is just as contentious as that between the English and the Irish: religion and nation remain as justifications, if not at the root, of disputes around the world. In the film, a young man hears of a threat given to one of his own partisans and then issues a threat of his own: each threatened man is told to leave a worksite; and the central character here, Alistair Little, a Protestant, actually a boy with scared blue eyes, is committed to killing a man even after he learns that the threatened man, Jim Griffin, a Catholic, already plans to leave, to start his own business. There is no real reason to kill, except to prove his willingness to do so. One might think Five Minutes of Heaven a portrait of cruelty, a film without mystery, with no further question likely—as it is questions, not answers, that most inspire contemplation—but that is not the case. It is an achievement that the film, which takes as its subject the lasting effects of terrorism, moves the viewer beyond horror and loathing to respect and understanding: it is a film that teaches that forgiveness is difficult but makes sanity and peace possible.

Ireland is a small country with a large shadow, with an old, Celtic culture, featuring speakers of Gaelic, and influential missionaries and literary bards, artists and craftsmen. (The University of Dublin was begun in 1591.) One might expect more from this land of learning and mythology, the birthplace of George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats. Why are many of its young men given easily to using force to demonstrate their worth? Why are they unable to imagine the results of violence, the disruption of other people’s lives, the grief? Why is the inheritance of culture—the literature, the philosophy, the spiritual practices—unable to bring them to civilization, to make them deeply humane?

Is it because religions—moral beliefs wedded to social institutions; passionate convictions regarding ideal but immaterial realities that, though unproven, yet demand piety and proofs—have long been the ground, root, and branch of conflict, disagreement, misunderstanding? The Catholic Church may have emphasized a god of righteousness and rigor, a god of judgments, but the Protestants imagined a god of compassion and fellowship. The Catholic Church may have insisted on church authority, but the Protestants allowed a certain freedom. Their differences are not merely those of attitude or doctrine, but have the flavor of an old family quarrel: centuries ago, the Catholic Church accepted contributions and in turn provided forgiveness for sin, and that the sixteenth-century German priest and teacher Martin Luther protested, writing and then posting his critique on a church door—becoming the first Protestant, in fact if not name. The Roman Catholic Church may be the older church, an international and wealthy church with its home in Rome, but the Protestant faith, beginning with reformer Martin Luther and his followers, who protested the forbidding of changes in Catholic Church practices, is old enough to be sturdy tradition; and while one might imagine the churches could ignore each other, and tend their own flocks, that is not what has happened or does happen. It seems that religions that promise peace and salvation also sanction war.

Is it because much of modern Irish history has been achieved with violence, such as the Irish revolution against Britain of 1919 to 1922, leading to a signing of truce, bringing some independence but requiring ongoing allegiance to Britain? That gains have not been uniformly acclaimed—as when Irish Republicans attacked the Irish free state from 1922 through 1937? (The Wind that Shakes the Barley is one beautiful, moving, and troubling film that covers some of that history, in which brother fights brother.) The Republic of Ireland was declared in 1949, freeing the country from allegiance to British royalty, though official connection to Britain remained, inspiring some to continue to fight violently for complete independence.

Is the Irish allegiance to Catholicism part of the culture’s resistance to England and its church? The domestic violence between Irish Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, considering Protestants are such a small part of the population, can seem bizarre to distant observers as it must have seemed inevitable to those involved: thousands of people have died in the conflict. The director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film Five Minutes of Heaven, written by Guy Hibbert, a fictional treatment of the evolution of a true event (the murder was real), tells some of that history. I am not fond of stories in which people decide to do destructive things from which it is almost impossible to yield a positive result. Yet, knowing how religion and politics continue to lead to violence and war around the world until today, it is not easy to dismiss the topic.

In Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Five Minutes of Heaven, Alistair Little’s friends hot wire the car they plan to use during the killing, and find frosted muffins in it, which fills them with childish glee—one more sign that these boys are taking on responsibility for life and death before they know what any of it means. The boys pass around the 38 Smith and Wesson gun Alistair Little has acquired as if it were a fetish object, and they talk about an older man’s approval of their decision to kill with relish. It is a damning detail that some of those Protestant boys know the intended Catholic victim’s mother—and that she and her son, Jim Griffin, who have done no harm, are not and cannot be abstractions. On their way to the assassination, the boys are terrified to find themselves near a military truck; they are cowards, brave only in ambush. The hooded Alistair arrives at the victim’s home and, standing a few feet from the windows of a church, Alistair shoots Jim Griffin as Griffin watches television, shooting through an apartment window, three bullets landing in the man’s head; a bloody, nasty scene that leaves the nearby Joe Griffin, Jim’s little brother, shocked and speechless. It is a terrible road to travel for male camaraderie and respect. However, once the deed is done and, intending to destroy evidence, Alistair and his friends burn the car they traveled in, Alistair’s face is suffused with pleasure and pride, with satisfaction. (It may be, as well, psychosexual, a suggestion of the buried and dishonest homoeroticism at the root of much social violence; and, also, Alistair looks more confident as he looks at young women at a dance the boys subsequently attend.) In this film, a fiction film informed by a true story, are situations and narratives that we find believable—home life, male camaraderie, dumb violence, misplaced blame, unrecognized victims, and the presentation of a man who made and makes a celebrated career of talking about his crime and rehabilitation—and the preparation for a televised encounter between the scarred brother of the murdered man and that man’s killer.

In Five Minutes of Heaven, the bulky and grave Liam Neeson plays the older incarnation of the young man who willfully kills a fellow citizen, expecting to gain the respect of other men and the appreciation of his community, a fatal act that leads him to prison—before he gains the good regard of the world through advertising his spiritual transformation. There is a sly joke, though here it is sly and bitter, in the acknowledgement that you can gain fame from transgression (on the contrary, how many people gain fame from talking about good living, about all the crimes they refused to commit?). Is the popularity of transgressors based on a common recognition of the facts of life, or a capitulation to trash? Misconduct and misfortune are frequently the paving stones to celebrity and wealth today, possibly more than hard work or talent: indications of a decadent, failing society. Liam Neeson is convincing as someone who is trying to find a way of redeeming a youthful but terrible mistake, as he has a spiritual quality that makes depth, sensitivity, and remorse perceptible qualities—and he is an intelligent and good actor. It is easy to imagine Neeson in a Bergman film. Neeson has been in all kinds of films, good and bad, and played roles large and small. Neeson’s Alistair, who has spent twelve years in prison and emerged as a public spokesman, seems confident, suave, thoughtful. It would be interesting to see if the character’s good intentions and solitude are ever broken by self-pity and its indulgences, whether crying, drink, or sexual activity.

However we do see that Joe Griffin, the younger but now middle-age brother of the murdered Jim Griffin, is asked to meet with the killer of his brother, and that Joe has been haunted by the terrifying event that happened when he himself was merely a boy (actor Kevin O’Neill is young Joe). Joe grew up remembering his grief-stricken and irrational mother blaming him for doing nothing as his brother was killed, a condemnation that has filled Joe with rage as well as sorrow; and, while Joe seems ordinary and practical, he has a desire for vengeance that promises to destroy. (Are you really human if you do not respond to acts of violence; and can you stay human if you do?) It is easy to see how violence begets violence. The swarthy James Nesbitt plays the embittered and seething man, the one who seems so simple but is not—a man who can throw his wife and children aside to get at the man he has not known but long hated. Yet, Joe is a survivor: Joe’s father, other brother, and mother died not long after the assassination, emblems of grief, figures of collateral damage. It is a corroborating revelation that our deepest feelings can be secret but do not remain so: when Nesbitt’s Joe—his eyes bright, enthusiastic, and wide—mockingly says that killing Neeson’s Alistair could be Five Minutes of Heaven, it is both black humor and his deepest desire.

How do we know what anyone really feels? How can public declarations be confirmed? We can judge what people do—and the logic and sincerity of what they say. Neeson’s Alistair killed a man, and then says that he regrets that. (The man Alistair kills, Joe’s older brother Jim, has some resemblance to Alistair’s father, the kind of thing that suggests a family quarrel gone very bad.) Is Alistair a fortune-hunting murderer on the make, or a transformed person? (Religion may be one of the causes of Alistair’s crime, but he has no discernible spiritual consciousness until after he has gone to prison.) Nesbitt’s Joe witnessed but did not commit a crime, but has been made to feel guilty, a guilt he feels throughout what seems a normal life—and he looks like a decent man, though he carries within him quite murderous feelings, which he begins to articulate as the film Five Minutes of Heaven unfurls. The people who invite Joe to meet Alistair think they will be able to film a rare reconciliation, the kind of thing that can be a positive symbol for the world (forgiveness is a nice thought, a wonderful lesson, a great story). Of course, they do not understand how hard it is to forgive real pain. That is what Joe knows, that is what we see in him—and it is important to remember how disfiguring, how enraging, how lasting pain is.

The place where Alistair and Joe are to meet is a large manor, full of antiques and paintings, elegant, formal, rich; and for Joe it is a symbol of the kind of life Alistair Little has been living, hobnobbing with the Queen, the Pope, and the Dalai Lama. The assembled television crew speak to Joe in the careful, supposedly healing language of attentive psychology, yet telling Joe that they want him to be truthful: “Truth and reconciliation—what’s at stake? Is it possible?” Joe is a walking contradiction; quiet and polite, and also tormented—and some of his observations and statements are shrewdly mocking. Joe, apparently a factory worker, thinks of himself as entering the “celebrity circuit of life’s victims.” One senses the appreciation and awkwardness of someone not used to public attention. Sometimes there is nothing funnier than an intelligent person who has lived an ordinary life: he sees the limits of everything, and the promise of nothing. “I don’t do kindness. I hate kindness…I’ve got all the wrong feelings,” says Joe. The knife-carrying Joe thinks that he cannot do reconciliation—he wants revenge, but when he speaks with a young woman helping with the show, Vika (actress Anamaria Marinca, in an essential performance—observant, sensitive, wary), a short-haired, blue-jeaned girl from Vladivostok, Joe gets a different sense of Alistair—as someone who has been diminished rather than enriched by his crime: a broken man living in a cold, empty apartment, a man who actually worried that a meeting between the two men would be too painful for Joe.

The question is, then, Is true vengeance possible, or useful? Can Joe kill Alistair; and if he does, will it make a difference to Joe’s spiritual well-being? (Is Joe where Alistair had been, facing a choice as to whether to take a life?) Will Joe be comforted—released, soothed—if he kills Alistair? Will Joe be even more damned if he kills, whether or not Joe is arrested and punished by the larger society? Often we want to speak or act, just to be able to know we have spoken or acted, that our own existence and sense of agency have been affirmed: and it does not always matter whether the speech or act is creative or destructive. Sometimes when the act is destructive, the relief is both sharp and brief; and rather than being conclusive, it simply raises the possibility of further destructive action. Maybe the next thing—the next blow—against someone else will destroy what we ourselves feel inside? It is a dance of madness.

As Alistair prepares to meet Joe, Alistair says that when he was young no one told him that killing was wrong—could that be true?—and that once you have joined a terror gang, your own story is the only one that matters. Alistair connects the kind of terrorism he was involved with to contemporary manifestations, to the terrorism that some Muslim boys are getting into. Alistair recommends that communities reach out to their boys and young men—but what are families, school, church, and various social institutions for, if not the transmission of ideals and values? Society creates forms and rituals with which to convey the feelings and ideas, the morality, it considers important, but it is possible that the evolved structures—the old rhetoric and routine—are what alienates, what does not seem natural to a young person. It is also possible that young people see and hear the difference between what is preached and what is believed and done, and take their shape from what is actual rather than ideal. It is possible that survival of the fittest remains the fundamental fact—and that the needs of self and tribe go before all else. Alistair’s wisdom does not seem equal to the violence and pain he has brought. We see later Alistair speaking with his own counselor about what he feels, about the heaviness of his days, about his crushing guilt; and it is gratifying to have him wonder if his preaching is not a form of cheating. Yet, when he reaches out to Joe away from the television cameras, it is an act of both bravery and inevitability. Joe then arranges for them to meet at the building where Joe once lived with his family, now an abandoned building—across from a church, which we never see much of; and the two men fight, are each hurt, but survive. Joe realizes that he wants to be the kind of man his daughters can respect—good thing he did not have sons. The film contains confrontation, violence, and healing; and it is, probably, as honest and hopeful a film as could be made on the subject.

Essay submitted on July 18, 2011

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 15, Issue 9 / September 2011 Film Reviews   liam neeson   political cinema