Sunday, 12 April 2009

The dereliction of reconciliation

I just watched Five Minutes of Heaven, via the splendid iPlayer. It's an hour-and-a-half long television film that rips away all the sentimentally-flowered wallpaper from the dilapidated ruin that is reconciliation. A word all too easily spoken; a concept all too easily extolled ... but one all too rarely examined.

The narrative is rooted in the sectarianism of Northern Ireland. Alastair Little – a naive, glamour-seeking teenager – undertakes to carry out his first killing on behalf of the Protestant UVF. 33 years later, the producers of a television documentary arrange – with an eye toward 'truth and reconciliation' – a meeting between Little and his victim's brother, Joe Griffin.

Whilst the Northern Irish setting may provide the scenario, the film's themes are clearly universal: the seductive glamour of violence, the blood feud, the hunger for revenge, the messy results of apparently straightforward actions.

All themes, it hardly needs saying, that have been explored almost to exhaustion in countless works of film, theatre and literature. What makes Five Minutes of Heaven worth watching? What does it add?

It adds a very good script, and superb acting. Liam Neeson, as former UVF gunman Little, is excellent in a difficult role that could easily veer into cliche. And the parallels between him and Griffin – the man to whom he is bound for life – are (on the whole) subtly drawn.

There's a point at which the charismatically unhinged Griffin (finely played by James Nesbitt) is shaken from his thoughts of revenge when a cameraman trips over. It's an emblematic moment: this film shows us that – time and again – elegant narrative arcs and pre-conceived actions are inevitably twisted, derailed by the mundanities of actual life, in all its shonkily unromantic unpredictability.

And it's in its realism that the film is at its best. In its careful, methodical dismantlement of the notion that this kind of thing is in any way simple or elegant or glamorous. This extends to the violence depicted onscreen, which is brilliantly powerful, in its wheezing, guttural, animalistic banality.

Sure, it's not perfect. I wasn't entirely convinced by some of the dialogue between Joe and the slightly-deus-ex-machina film runner Vika (Anamaria Marinca), and there are slips into slightly cliched territory. But they are admirably rare.

And I say again, the acting here is brilliant at times – and I found the closing scenes extraordinarily moving.

I urge you to watch Five Minutes of Heaven while you can: it won't be on iPlayer much longer. Hurry, hurry!


agmcbride said...

Hi - you responded to one of my comments on another's blog about this topic.

I think a Northern Irish perspective to The Troubles will generally be different to an English/Welsh perspective.

Billicatons said...

Hi Alan ... Thanks for commenting back.

Sure it will ... Lots of people I'd speak to in England have no idea about even the vaguest details of the Troubles. Many (amongst whom Charlie Brooker in the Guardian retrospectively numbered himself, quite recently) wouldn't even be sure whether the IRA were Protestant or Catholic.

... And that's not even to go into the whole historical apportionment of blame for the whole thing. Yikes.

But I'm sincerely interested to follow up a comment you made on your post -- specifically about Five Minutes of Heaven -- to the effect that an English/Scottish/Welsh viewer of the film would take away something very different from a Northern Irish viewer.

I'm interested to know what you think that difference in interpretation would be.

Thanks again for the comment.

Billicatons said...

Hey, sorry, agmcbride: just realised you said on *another's* blog ... Which means you're not Alan. Sorry for the mistaken identity ...

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