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An update on the Screening Violence project

Last modified: Tue, 07 Apr 2020 17:51:28 BST

'Five Minutes of Heaven': a close reading

Five Minutes of Heaven (UK and Ireland: dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2009)

This film is a fictionalised account of a meeting set up between Joe Griffen, whose brother was killed in the Troubles, and Alistair Little, the UVF member who killed him.

'Five Minutes of Heaven': rear view mirror


Five Minutes of Heaven begins with the voice of Alistair Little as an adult (Liam Neeson), speaking from out of the dark screen: ‘For me to talk about the man I have become, you need to know about the man I was’. Already, it is clear that the past and the present are going to be presented together in the film; it will not be about one or the other alone.

This opening also gives the audience an intimate connection to Little – we seem to start inside his head. There is the sound of a ticking clock in the background, and time and time passing are going to be important themes. The film then cuts between darkness and Little’s face as a fifteen-year-old (Mark Ryder), and genuine archive footage of the conflict. These are memories that will be shared by most of the audience. This folds the reality of the conflict into the fictionalised narrative, suspending the film between reality and fiction.

The flashback sequence begins with shots of the outside of Little’s home in Lurgan, then his parents listening to a news report on the radio. Both the conflict and news media representations of it are deeply embedded into the lives of his family. Together, these audio and visual props place us back in the past, to 1975 – but within the mise en scene, objects and people are placed further back. The fifteen-year-old Little keeps his gun under his bed, hidden amongst his childhood toys; he stands at the mirror and examines his spots. He is still a teenager rather than a man. In voiceover, he describes the feeling of being ‘under siege’ and needing to do ‘something’: his feelings are intense, but vague. The film paints a picture of a young man at a loose end.

After the killing, the film returns to the present day. Its colour palette changes from warm to cool as we move to the present time. The visual coldness of the film at this point evokes the trauma that remains, rather than the initial intensity of the violence as it happened. However, we soon realise that the violence persists in the minds of the two protagonists. Joe Griffen (James Nesbitt) is in a car, being chauffeured to the interview. His words are almost a soliloquy; a driver is there, but barely responds. The film cuts between him and Little, also in a chauffeured car, who is calmer. It also shifts between Griffen speaking his thoughts and thinking to himself in voiceover. He appears to be trapped in his own thoughts and listening only to himself.

The mostly anonymous chauffeurs take away direct agency from both men, as they drive them towards their fate. Griffen is seen repeatedly in his car’s rear-view and wing mirrors, as though trapped by ‘looking back’ to his past, and to a great extent still living in it.

When they reach the River Finn building, we see what is intended: a planned face to face meeting between the perpetrator and the victim of an act of political violence. The structure of the meeting is an archetypal ‘transitional justice’ scenario, set up by a reconciliation project. However, this is a highly staged and closely watched encounter, designed by a TV production company. The situation is set up to be both conciliatory and confrontational: two chairs have been placed opposite each other, in a grand, airy room. We might see the architecture of the space as a reminder of the colonial history of Northern Ireland, and how the characters are obligated in some ways to live inside the persistent structure of that history, and to attempt to recover from its violence from within that space.

Little has become a well-known expert on the conflict and on reconciliation, and frequently appears, we find out, on radio and TV to share his expertise on the subject. Griffen, meanwhile, has brought a concealed knife with him, intending to live out his long-held ambition of killing the man who murdered his brother. The producer lays the possibility of ‘truth and reconciliation’ on thick to Griffen, emphasising the political significance of their meeting. Griffen’s soliloquy spills out in his conversation with the programme’s runner (as a young Polish woman, she is distinguished as standing outside the national conflict and thus outside of the past).

Griffen is asked to descend the stairs towards the enormous wooden door of the room repeatedly for more takes: he sees this as demeaning. The staging is somewhat reminiscent of Hollywood (‘you expect Bette Davis to come sweeping down!’) or a princess meeting her prince at a ball – a bizarrely hyper-‘civilised’ or ‘sophisticated’ looking choice. Perhaps he also perceives it as emasculating; he has been daubed with make-up at this point as well. The knife becomes significant as an obviously re-masculinising, empowering reply to his situation. A cameraman walks backwards down the stairs, capturing Griffen’s face as he moves. The extra takes of the approach to the door also force Griffen to remain in the pre-confrontation state for longer, heightening his emotions for the sake of the narrative progression the producers want. The demand for repetition is reminiscent of victims being forced to repeat procedures (for example, when providing their testimony), and thus forced to relive the events they experienced. This is a known, recurring issue in transitional justice and reconciliation processes, even when they are not televised.

By starting this sequence behind the scenes of a TV programme while it’s being shot, by referencing Little’s post-conflict media career, and by having Griffen dismiss the cameras before a meeting with Little can happen, the film sets itself up to take apart conventional media narratives and perspectives on the conflict, and on post-conflict discourse. It shows that it intends to explore emotions and affect which have been repressed by ‘civilised’ and ‘sophisticated’ discourse: in particular, the desire for revenge, that ‘five minutes of heaven’ that Griffen has relived repeatedly over the years, perhaps even as much as he has relived the pain of his brother’s murder.

'Five Minutes of Heaven': A Close Reading (part 2)

Halfway through the film, Little is sitting in the meeting room, waiting for Griffen. He begins to speak: ‘In order to talk about the man I have become…’. We realise that this is where the opening lines of the film are from. In this way, the film loops the narrative back again, moving us back towards the past within the present. As he speaks, we see Little in person and Little as seen on the camera’s monitor. We don’t yet know whether he is sincere or playing to the camera; and we perhaps question how valuable it is even if he is sincere. Again, screened narratives are placed under question: how valuable is framing this moment in the first place?

We hear ‘Cut’, and the film cuts to the TV show’s director and producers in chairs, with their own monitors (and they are intently watching the screens, not Little himself). The interruption again makes the narrative feel hollow, or at least constructed for repeated telling and for consumption yet again (‘The thing you have to understand is the mindset…’, he intones, while the monitors show him from different well-lit angles). The mic is ‘picking up noise’, a crew member points out – and we might ask, how much of the post-conflict narrative has just been ‘noise’? How much has been truly meaningful?

But Little does begin to explore the nature of the narrative at the time: ‘the mindset… it was only our people being killed…’. The camera pans slowly. ‘In my head it was the proper, just, and fair thing to do’. There has been an emphasis on heads so far in the narrative: Griffen’s brother was shot three times in the head; there have been long close ups of Little’s and Griffen’s heads as they have been seemingly lost in thought; the monitors on set frame the participants’ heads. In the film we move between the ‘heads’ (the respective mindsets) of the two men.

The camera comes to rest on a direct close-up, after moving between the monitors. Later, during the conversation between Griffen and the runner, we find out that Little’s apartment is ‘cold’, ‘empty’ – interiors of buildings stand for mindsets in the film. We could also note that the runner and Griffen are outside smoking on the balcony during the conversation. This is an in-between space where Griffen can find out information. Buildings are significant in the film as both standing for and enforcing institutional power (religious, historical, social etc.) and are thus instrumental parts of a conflict like this. They can both separate and unite groups.

This focus on buildings, on being trapped in one’s own ‘mindset’ and trapped in the past, will culminate in both men falling together outside the window of the abandoned house. This represents a painful but necessary escape from the trap of mindset (as Little notes at a therapy session: ’33 years that boy has been living in his head’. He means that Griffen himself, as a child, has been living inside Griffen’s head. Providing this commentary without context loops the narrative once again, so that Little again acts as narrator and simultaneously as commentator on a narrative he doesn’t necessarily have the right to control. Having said this, his critique appears to be accurate.

The arranged meeting doesn’t end up happening. Griffen is overwhelmed and becomes too distressed to either meet Little or to try to kill him. But the viewer is left with the implication that such a meeting, even if it had happened without violence, would have been a trite ending to the personal conflict, with a foregone affective conclusion demanded by the format: to culminate in a handshake (‘I know, I know what you fuckin’ want. Shake his fuckin’ hand and we can all go home’, Griffen muses to himself).

Little, walking through a Protestant estate, passes murals on his way to a pub. There, he meets a loyalist, released in the Good Friday agreement (‘and on top of the world. Still living it, just like he always was’) who is now a gangster controlling the estate (‘he’s killed a few Catholics in his time, and now he’s killing his own’). The Loyalist paramilitary narrative begins to feel hollow overall, not only as a personal issue for Little. Ideologues apparently became gangsters; in doing so, they prolonged the conflict, living in the violent past and profiting off it.

When Little goes to the Catholic pub in Lurgan to find Griffen, he finds men sitting silently in the dark. It is nearly empty. Like the Loyalists, these men could be said to be living in a conflict-post-conflict-state, where the past persists into the present. The pub – a traditional meeting place for an estate – is seen as bereft of any life or joy. An interior room is again representative of ‘mindset’ and an inability, or lack of desire, to move on. So many of the physical progressions in the narrative so far – Griffen in the chauffeur-driven car, Little in his own chauffeur-driven car, Little on the train to the pub – have been to ‘nowhere’. The characters, despite their travels around the region, still end up stuck and unable to move on emotionally.

At the culmination of the film is a fight between Griffen and Little at the latter’s abandoned childhood home. Both men fall together, in a moment that is both cathartic and which emphasises the mutual destructiveness of the conflict. The empty window frame of the dilapidated house frames a church across the road. This background image lingers after they fall: religion has been in the background of the conflict, and remains present, at least as a building (again, as a shell of a ‘mindset’). The camera zooms in on the church and its own windows. Its own series of frames are in a pattern of three, perhaps reminiscent of the repeating patterns of monitors from earlier in the film. The camera tilts downwards, in the same movement, to the two men, unconscious in each other’s arms.

'Five Minutes of Heaven': the fall

While still on the ground, Little gives his post-conflict testimony. It is simultaneously a confession, in the legal and religious senses. He admits the pleasure he took in the aftermath of the killing. Griffen watches him silently, the church in the background of his shot: he has the authority now. But Little is then the one who gives Griffen some sort of atonement. There is a quasi-sexual feeling to the physical confrontation and climax – Griffen even smokes a post-conflict cigarette. His ‘five minutes of heaven’, such as it was, was not what he expected. By taking the ‘frames’ of the film from the city itself, rather than relying on the frame of the film itself, Five Minutes of Heaven could be said to move away representing its own representational values as authoritative.

The film cuts to Griffen’s wife and children in their home, watching TV. Griffen, however, is watching his family. Perhaps this implies that Griffen has finally begun to move on from the ‘screened’ narrative of the conflict and is instead becoming focused on the future. The film cuts to Griffen at a men’s group therapy session. He talks about how he ‘doesn’t know the [correct] words’ for the situation. He wants his daughters to be proud of him, he says – and he begins to sob: ‘that’s it…that’s out…’. He has finally begun to release what he has been holding in, and what killing, or the ‘five minutes of heaven’, would not necessarily have brought him.

Five Minutes of Heaven ends with Little, in the middle of the street, being ‘released’ from his own imprisoning mindset by Griffen (‘We’re finished’, he tells Little over the phone). Little, in the centre of a crossing, with a grand building in the background, collapses. The background building suggests that the imprisoning conflict will always be present, but that it can potentially be escaped. The final shot is from above, as Little gets up and walks off – away from the imprisoning ‘mindset’, the film implies. Like Griffen, he is, to some extent, no longer stuck in his head, or in Griffen’s head. The shot is notable not a close-up, and is mobile, not static. Little and Griffen have been in a forced intimate relationship for years, living in each other’s heads, and they now experience mutual release – they let go of each other.