Though the highly charged Irish “troubles” are at the center of Five Minutes of Heaven, this latest film from Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall), eschews taking sides in a civil war that has largely been resolved and instead seeks to illuminate the consequences that linger in any conflict long after the last bomb is thrown. The end result, though grounded in current events, takes on a delicate universality that could’ve easily been lost in a story more caught up in notions of right and wrong.
Liam Neeson plays the real life Alistair Little who, as a 17-year-old member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, murdered Catholic Jim Griffin. James Nesbitt (Bloody Sunday, Match Point) plays Joe Griffin who was 11 years old when he witnessed his brother Jim’s murder. From that night onward, the two men’s lives followed completely different trajectories. Alistair ultimately served 12 years in prison for his crime, repented, paid his debt to society and emerged to forge a successful life for himself. Joe meanwhile never quite recovered. His family was destroyed by the loss and he remained haunted by the guilt he was unable to prevent the murder of his brother.
Screenwriter Guy Hibbert spent two years separately interviewing both men and the story he came up with provides a detailed account of the murder told in flashback and fuses it to a fictional scenario imagining what would happen if the two men were to meet and confront each other as part of a televised interview program. It works beautifully as both a thoughtful drama and as a suspenseful psychological thriller. Peppered throughout are moments of surprising humor that work as a kind of safety valve for the steadily building tension.
Liam Neeson plays Alistair with the reserved calm and authority of a man who has made something of his life, but underneath every gesture and expression is the sense that he’s simply keeping a lid on the turmoil still raging inside of him. The war is over, peace has been made and debts have been paid, but he’s still guilty of having taken another man’s life. It’s a subtle, restrained and grounding performance.
In contrast, James Nesbitt is more of a live wire. His Joe is a nervous and unpredictable open wound of a man. Nesbitt could easily have overplayed him, but he never chews the scenery. Though more openly hostile, Joe is played as a man whose rage is still being kept on a leash until just the right moment. Whether or not that moment will occur is a foundation for much of the film’s suspense.
Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) is also good as the television makeup girl who acts as a kind of bridge between the two men in the moments leading up to their fateful (and possibly fatal) confrontation on live television, but really this is a two-character piece and the two leads drive the story forward every minute they’re on screen.
Five Minutes of Heaven is so simple and almost nonchalant in its drama that its power sneaks up on you. It’s entertaining, but it seems almost weightless at first only to have the full impact of what’s happening inside these men hit you later. It neatly avoids heavy-handed moralizing while reminding us of the consequences of conflict for both winners and losers.
The film premieres today on IFC OnDemand and it opens theatrically in New York on Friday with a one-week Los Angeles theatrical run coming 8/28 at the Nuart.
Five Minutes of Heaven. UK/Ireland 2009. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Screenplay by Guy Hibbert. Cinematography by Ruairi O’Brien. Edited by Hans Funck. Starring Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt and Anamaria Marinca. 1 hour 30 minutes. Not rated by the MPAA. 4 stars (out of 5)