Five Minutes of Heaven, by Guy Hibbert, BBC 2

Tom Jennings is disappointed, but not surprised, at this drama reducing the legacy of the North of Ireland Troubles to personal therapeutics.

Submitted by Tom Jennings on May 23, 2009

Troubles Shared. Television review – Tom Jennings
Shown on BBC 2 on April 5th, Five Minutes of Heaven won international cinema awards for screenwriting and direction (by Oliver Hirschbiegel) for its complex portrayal of personal legacies in the North of Ireland Troubles. Flashing back to 1975, aspiring teenage UVFer Alastair Little shoots local Catholic Jim Griffin. His 11-year-old brother Joe witnesses the murder – which leaves the family imploding – and thirty-odd years later (as James Nesbit) is still consumed with anguish threatening to ruin relationships with wife and daughters. Meanwhile the sad and lonely killer (Liam Neeson), reformed after a 12-stretch, travels the world professionally preaching truth and reconciliation. They are nearly brought together by a production company exploiting fashionable ‘closure’ by stage-managing a Reality TV showdown but – packing a knife to exact revenge – Griffin can’t hack their cynically fake solicitousness. Little subsequently makes contact privately and their meeting results in a mutual battering, after which they are both able to contemplate moving on.

Though based on real individuals, the protagonists have never actually met and the screenplay developed interview material to speculate on what might happen if they did. This gives the film interesting forward-looking potential compared to recent fact-based fictions about the Troubles. Presumably newly-freed from the need to pander to government propaganda, two worthy 2002 television drama-documentaries commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday (written by Paul Greengrass and Jimmy McGovern) preceded Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), which carefully sketched different ideological, organisational and class-based divergences among 1920s Irish independence campaigners as well as judiciously depicting Brit brutality. This incipient political forthrightness then allowed Steve McQueen’s expressionistic Hunger (2008) to transpose such overwhelming historical agony onto the flesh of Bobby Sands during his 1981 hunger strike. Unfortunately Five Minutes of Heaven has neither the courage nor conviction of these films in insisting on the institutional and cultural underpinning and support of violence and oppression.

Strenuously narrowing the damage down to isolated psyches leaves the optimistic payoff tritely unconvincing – wasting powerful performances relying on star-personas (Neeson’s effortless gravitas stereotypically balancing Nesbit’s likeable neurotic) to overdetermine the effective recuperation of any genuinely conflictual edge within safe mainstream comfort zones. Though less crass than Fifty Dead Men Walking’s (Kari Skogland, 2009) mystification of IRA mole Martin McGartland’s biography into vacuous commercial entertainment, Hibbert’s narrative yields equally soporific ‘liberal-issue’ therapeutics, doing no justice to any meaningful sense of collective redemption because questions of belief, commitment, community – ultimately sociality of any kind – simply evaporate. Similarly, officialdom pretends that, with the ‘politics’ supposedly sorted, monetary value attributed to suffering settles the matter (see the government’s Eames-Bradley Report on compensation for victims’ families). Thus the title, referencing the fleeting pleasure of vengeance, instead evokes Warhol’s ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ – the failed spin-doctoring of Five Minutes of Heaven’s predatory media perhaps unconsciously signalling the fundamental dishonesty of the present queasy consensus concerning the Six Counties.

Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 9, May 2009.
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