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Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Northern Ireland just seems to endure as a sore in the body politic of Britain. Events such as the shooting of a policeman (10 March 2009) or the shooting of a pair of soldiers by men posing as pizza delivery men (8 March 2009) continue to bother people living otherwise peaceful lives in the Isles. We thought it was all finished, done, forgotten. But it's not. And Five Minutes of Heaven (dir Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2009) shows why that is the case.

It's a fairly short feature at just under 90 minutes but it stars two of the best in English acting circles: James Nesbitt as Joe Griffin and Liam Neeson as Alistair Little. Neeson's sonorous voice dominates the opening credits. "For me to talk about the man I have become, you need to know about the man I was," he says. The story begins in the mid-70s amid a group of young Unionist sympathisers preparing for a retaliatory hit on a Catholic worker.

Mark David plays the young Alistair, a plucky buck with a revolver hidden under his bed inside a box of children's toys and a gang of apt friends who are expert in the darker arts, such as an ability to hot-wire a brown, late-model Ford so that they can drive into the Catholic parts of the city of Ulster where their target lives. The hit goes off flawlessly but Alistair is taken by the police and jailed.

Fifteen years later, and he's out on the streets again. But the authorities want their pound of flesh, which takes the form of subjecting him to a televised 'truth and reconciliation' session at an imposing castle-like pile set among green fields outside the city. Like an executive retreat or the place governments choose to stage peace talks, it's cold, impersonal and forbidding.

The drive to the place by chauffeurs ferrying Little and Griffin in high-end automobiles allows the two actors to show off some of their more intimate appeal. Nesbitt, especially, shines here. Griffin is gripped by doubt and racked by insistent flashbacks where he is compelled to hold conversations with his dead mother: who blamed the small boy who had been playing with a soccer ball outside the house when the young Alistair came calling armed with his six-shooter. Griffin's father died soon after the assassination. His mother endured for a while, but she also died of a broken heart. In his maturity, Griffin now has a wife and two young daughters. Faced with the task of confronting Little again, he almost falls to pieces.

The drama continues at the castle, where Griffin is shown a room by the seemingly-solicitous maitre-d'affaires and his posse of assistants. One of them, the gofer Vika (Anamaria Marinca), shares a cigarette with Griffin on the stone balcony. Griffin is dimayed to learn that Little's flat is austere and unwelcoming. What he wants is revenge, and the weakness of his nemesis is like a betrayal of a cherished ideal.

In the suite's bathroom, Griffin adjusts the position of a sheath-knife he has brought along with him. It is to be used to kill Little: his 'five minutes of heaven'. But his will buckles under the strain of maintaining both his malice and his essential humanity: he flees the scene. The elaborate and expensive shoot is cancelled. Making peace is not as easy as setting up a whole flank of expensive cameras and engaging a special sound technician. It's a lot messier than that, the movie tells us.

But Little still wants to meet. He takes a note containing the number of his mobile phone to a private club with instructions that it is to be delivered to Griffin. The message is received, an event which turns Griffin into a monster once again, this time in his own home. His terrified wife cries out to him from the floor, where he has pushed her down. His children are in tears with fear and confusion.

At the old house where he has arranged to meet Griffin, Little enters the front doorway gingerly and slowly makes his way upstairs (pic) where his old foe awaits. In the ensuing struggle, both men fall out of the first-floor window into the street. They creakingly pick themselves up, dust off, and retire.

A few days later, Little receives a message on his mobile. It's Griffin contacting him again. "We're finished," the message reads.

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