Five Minutes in Heaven
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
Starring Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt and Anamaria Marinca
Goes well with: In the Name of the Father, The Boxer, Bloody Sunday
Violence, as they say, begets violence. Certainly that can be said about the conflict in Northern Ireland, which, we're reminded at the outset of Five Minutes of Heaven, claimed the lives of almost 4,000 people. Five Minutes isn't specifically about the long-standing religious differences there; rather, it focuses on one act of violence that came out of those circumstances and the consequences for two very different men that spring from their distant, shared past. It's a small movie with an interesting premise, a film that wouldn't stand out at all were it not for the tremendous performances from its two leading actors.
It all starts with Alistair Little (Liam Neeson) and Joe Griffen (James Nesbitt) traveling toward the same destination in separate cars. Turns out they're on their way to a TV taping that will put the two of them face-to-face for the first time in 33 years. As we see in flashbacks, the one and only time they encountered each other was when a teenage Little shot and killed Griffen's older brother while Griffen, then just a boy, watched. All of this goes down as modern-day Little explains via voiceover how and why he joined the Protestant paramilitary group Ulster Volunteer Force and how and why he found himself shooting down an innocent Catholic man.
In the intervening years, Little did time for the crime, and has since become a leading force for reconciliation, a consultant who specializes in helping broken men become the men they want to be. His status desperately pains Griffen, whose ride to the interview quickly becomes more like a panic attack. You see, Griffen's not into reconciliation. No, he's more of a fan of confrontation and revenge. He has spent 33 years agonizing over these events, the collapse of his family and the hatred his mother showed him after his brother's murder. Sure, he's got a wife and kids and has worked hard to put everything behind him, but he is a broken man, not the man he wants to be, and the opportunity to meet Little offers him a chance to get even. But it's not the memory of his dead brother that drives his desire for vengeance—it's his own dismal life. This is his chance at five minutes of heaven, five minutes he's both desperate for and terrified of.
Nesbitt is terrific in this role, a man in the midst of an emotional tsunami, who's suddenly consumed with a past he has worked so hard to suppress. And his stress is in no way private, surrounded as he is by a TV crew dying to get his reactions on camera. He is funny and pathetic, almost manic in his pathological need for some kind of closure. But the film comes together because Guy Hibbert's script has Neeson's character suffering the same sort of pain as Griffen. He isn't some holier-than-thou prophet, a snake-oil salesman exploiting Griffen's pain and suffering for personal gain. What neither of them realizes is that his opposite is an equally broken man, unable to move on from an event that was all too tragic and that happened when both of them were all too young. Neither is able to be the man he would like to become. Even though the act that spurs Five Minutes of Heaven is three decades gone, it's an act of violence that continues to beget more violence, be it emotional or physical.
Hirschbiegel, who directed the outstanding Downfall before stopping off in Hollywood just long enough to make the unmemorable The Invasion, returns to form, creating a taut showcase for two solid actors. Yes, the ending is moderately abrupt, and the great little role for Anamaria Marinca, who was so good in the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, feels slightly tacked on. But the movie is nicely shot, and the work done by Nesbitt and Neeson is so high-caliber that the flaws are fairly forgivable.
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