In 1975, 17 year old Alistair Little, a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), murdered a 19 year old Catholic, Jim Griffin by ruthlessly firing three bullets into his head. This happened at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland in a town called Lurgan.
The crime was witnessed by Jim’s younger brother Joe, who was just 11 at the time and shockingly, Jim and Joe’s mother, to the day she died, blamed Joe for not preventing the murder of his brother.
Alistair Little was subsequently arrested two weeks later and spent over 12 years in prison. He’s since become a prominent and ardent peace campaigner but as we were to discover, he has yet to overcome the burden of guilt at what he did…
This was the backdrop to this incredibly moving film based on author Guy Hibbert’s separate interviews with both Alistair and Joe. The film explored what could’ve happened if the two men ever met – they never have – and confronted the questions and issues that that scenario would raise, the most obvious being, is it possible to forgive such a reprehensible act?
It was an extremely emotive look at happens to the families of victims in the weeks, months and years that follow such a hideous crime as well as asking if someone can truly ever recover from witnessing a murder or indeed, committing one.
Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt were outstanding as Alistair and Joe respectively and each actor communicated the miasma of fear, bewilderment and raw anger that their character’s experienced, each haunted by the same split second that would change their lives forever.
As the young Alastair, Mark Davison portrayed his character with conviction and as a viewer, his zeal and enthusiasm to do “the hit” had very similar hallmarks to those we’ve seen latterly with regard to any number of extremists, perhaps most notably Islamic extremists for whom killing is often symbolic and an act with no point other than a show of power.
When the film moved on thirty years to the fictional meeting of Alistair and Joe, the tension and emotions that Joe was feeling were palpable and it made tough viewing. He was a total nervous wreck, filled with anxiety about the impending meeting whereas Alistair was calm and collected. Alistair was a reformed character and now an ardent peace campaigner so perhaps it was this that he felt would be conveyed to Joe and elicit forgiveness for his actions.
Joe however had no intention of forgiving and viewed Alistair with a hatred and contempt that drove his actions on an almost daily basis. He said of Alistair, “He’s living the life of Riley, swanning around telling everyone how it feels to kill a man.” Joe’s sole purpose in meeting Alistair was to kill him and give himself the longed for “five minutes of heaven” by destroying the man who’d destroyed his, and so many others, lives.
However, that moment never came and the majority of the film depicted a series of postponements of the meeting as it slowly but surely emerged that despite his façade of calm acceptance and self-forgiveness, Alistair was in fact riddled with guilt.
When the moment of the meeting did arrive however, the two didn’t meet on a TV show as was the original intention; rather, they met in a derelict house which it turned out was actually where the murder happened.
The meeting was difficult, dramatic, tense, emotional and powerfully portrayed the harsh realities of how deep and raw the wounds were within Joe and on a wider scale, showed how the conflicts in Northern Ireland – and anywhere where senseless terrorist murders occur – can have consequences that continue to devastate individual lives and whole communities long, long after the event.
This film, coming as it did at a time when there are frightening rumblings of discontent and issues yet again regarding Northern Ireland, Five Minutes of Heaven had a particularly poignant and piquant resonance which must touch the hearts of those living through – and those who previously lived through – the dreadful times that are and were “the troubles”. It seems too small a phrase to cover the hideous aftermath but this film showed it in explicit and heart rending depth.
If you missed it, I’d highly recommend watching it on catch up; it really was one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time, even though it was often very difficult to watch.