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Gone, but not forgotten

Northern Ireland is the backdrop for a provocative look at the politics of grief

I’ve seen three films about the Troubles in the past few weeks: Hunger, Steve McQueen’s movie about Bobby Sands; Fifty Dead Men Walking, which is about an IRA informer; and now Five Minutes of Heaven, in which Liam Neeson plays an ex-UVF man who meets the brother of the Catholic he murdered as a teenager. I have to say that Five Minutes was the most provocative by some distance. (No, Mr McQueen, you can’t shock me! Fetishising violence is not at all the same as making your audience really think about it; actually, it’s just creepy.)

But it also feels strange to say that, because it was certainly the least well written. Sometimes, Guy Hibbert’s script – based loosely on the stories of two real men – was sublime, each line ringing as true and as clear as a bell; but sometimes it was so melodramatic and clunky, I felt I was watching a piece of bad theatre. I can’t account for his occasional tin ear; perhaps he simply set himself rather too much to do in 80 minutes.

The 1975 section of the film, in which Alistair Little (Neeson) shot Jim Griffin as he sat at home in Lurgan watching The Generation Game, was mercifully brief; once you’ve seen one brown Cortina driven by a nervy sectarian gangster in flared jeans, you’ve seen them all (though, to add a footnote, the thing that always strikes me when I watch this kind of stuff is the way we all used to keep our telephone in the hall). Cut to the present. Jim’s brother, Joe (James Nesbitt), is on his way to take part in a television series in which victims of the Troubles meet those who killed their relatives.

Joe’s burden down the years has, you gather, been especially terrible, not only because he witnessed the pointlessly violent death of his brother, but because his mother blamed him for it. He was just a boy, practising his football in the street, yet she was convinced that he could have stopped the thugs in balaclavas somehow. Joe is to be filmed meeting Alistair, who has spent the years following his release from prison touring the world, preaching reconciliation. Alistair, you notice, wears his guilt like an expensive suit.

The scenes involving the TV crew were just right: their platitudinous smiles, their horrible, misguided praise for their subjects’ suffering. And it was with some relief that I realised that the men’s encounter was not, in fact, going to take place on camera – Joe ran out, hands shaking, refusing to be a “show pony” – but in the last ten minutes of the film.

I’m not sure I could have borne it had the two men ended up embracing while the soundman and the video editor wiped the sentimental tears from their eyes. But would Joe really have taken a knife to the set and muttered aloud his plan to kill Alistair? He was broken, but he wasn’t psychotic.

Joe’s monologues were absolutely desperate, I thought, and it was a mark of the brilliance of Nesbitt’s performance that he delivered them with such aplomb, even though he must surely have known that they sounded like a Budgens version of Jacobean tragedy (Nesbitt’s face would periodically fill with sorrow, but from the mouth up, so that when his eyes did finally swim with tears, it was as though grief had simply spilled out of him). And why did we have to have a similarly cut-priced Greek chorus in the form of a Converse-wearing TV runner who, over a companionable fag, told him how sad Alistair had seemed when she went round to his clinical Belfast flat?

That said, you did feel that Hibbert had put his finger on something when Joe said to her: “I’ve got all the wrong feelings. But him, he’s got all the right feelings.” Our obsession with hierarchy now extends even to sentiment. Hibbert, at least, was determined to avoid this trap himself. He gave us emotion, but not too much of it. The men met, and it was short and bloody, but not fatally so. And absolution, when it came, was shot through with disinclination and tenacity, and consisted of just five words. “It’s Joe Griffin,” said the voice on Alistair’s mobile. “We’re finished.”

Five Minutes of Heaven

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009