Five Minutes of Heaven

Liam Neeson returns home to star alongside Jimmy Nesbitt in the best of the current crop of Troubles-related films

Five Minutes of Heaven has a largely Northern Irish cast and crew. It was filmed in Belfast, Lurgan, Glenarm and Newtownards, and it’s based on a true story from our recent past. But the movie’s biggest selling point for Ulster viewers is that it marks Liam Neeson’s first foray into local filmmaking after years in Hollywood.

The Ballymena-born superstar plays Alistair Little, a former UVF gunman who has served 12 years for killing a catholic worker in a Lurgan firm. He’s now a middle-aged, well-off public speaker, travelling the world helping others come to terms with the fallout from terrorism.

Neeson's character in the BBC film, which premiered in Belfast last week, is a departure from his recent roles in blockbusters such as Batman Begins and the vigilante thriller Taken, and there is a feeling among those entering the cinema that the movie must be a quality product for him to be involved.

Fellow Northern Ireland thespian James Nesbitt co-stars as Joe Griffen, the brother of Little’s victim, who witnessed the murder as a young boy. He’s grown into a skittery bundle of nerves – damaged, disturbed and initially hard to like. But Nesbitt manages to hang on to the audience’s sympathy in a subtly layered turn.

The two acting heavyweights clearly relish the opportunity to portray this pair of lost souls who are ‘inextricably linked for the rest of their lives’. Both are broken men, hoping to attain some closure at a remote country estate where a television crew will record their face-to-face meeting. Reconciliation, remorse and revenge are recurring motifs.

Supporting performers make the most of their time on screen. Mark Davison features as the younger version of Neeson’s character in a gripping prologue. He hopes killing Jim Griffen in retaliation for a republican threat against a protestant worker will make him feel ‘10 feet tall’ at the local disco, but it’s no spoiler to say it doesn’t.

Newcomers Paul Kennedy and Paul Garrett do well in their limited scenes, while the likes of Richard Dormer, Lalor Roddy and Barry McEvoy give the quality work we’ve come to expect from them. Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca is also great as Vika, the TV crew’s Russian runner – a smart nod to our new multi-cultural society.

Thematically, it’s a brave film, and sorely relevant. The storm surrounding the Eames-Bradley report is there in the futile raking over of the past. And the media’s obsession with reality programming, currently reaching its morbid nadir with the Jade Goody saga, is there in the simpering TV crew, keen to wring viewing figures from Little and Griffen’s pain.

Unlike some other Ulster-set pictures, Five Minutes of Heaven presents real people with real emotions, rather than political caricatures or slavish impersonations. There’s a slight sense that most of the budget went on securing Neeson, but the minimalist soundtrack, grotty colour scheme and amateurish fight scenes help underline the emptiness of the lead characters and the desolation of their predicament.

Understatedly directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall), the film sits well alongside the likes of Hunger and Fifty Dead Men Walking, but is, in its way, far more important. Hirschbiegel and screenwriter Guy Hibbert (Omagh) tackle how we, as a supposedly revitalised society, are obsessed with the past, unable to move forward and desperate for understanding.

The next logical step is a script about modern-day Northern Ireland that doesn’t reference the Troubles at all.

Five Minutes of Heaven will be screened on BBC Northern Ireland during March, before a network showing on BBC Two. The film will also be released theatrically in cinemas internationally.

Andrew Johnston