Five Minutes of Heaven (United Kingdom, 2009)

September 08, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Five Minutes of Heaven Poster

Five Minutes of Heaven is about consequences - the unintended consequences of an action that can have repercussions years or decades after an event. This material, which forms the mother lode of Five Minutes of Heaven's substance, is powerful and compelling, and director Oliver Hirschbiegel mines its valuable ore, crafting a movie that's part psychological thriller and part drama. His ability to generate something transcendent is undercut by an overly talky screenplay, where characters manage to speak many words but say surprisingly little, and by an anticlimactic finale that leaves one wondering who thinks this defines "closure."

On balance, it's a good movie but not a great one. Probably the only reason it's getting North American distribution is because of the involvement of Liam Neeson, whose dignified portrayal of former Ulster Volunteer Force terrorist Alistair Little stands in marked contrast to the explosive acting of James Nesbitt. Nesbitt plays Joe Griffen, the only surviving member of the Irish Catholic Griffen family, whose disintegration began in 1975 Belfast when a 17-year old Alistair murdered Joe's older brother, Jim. At the site of the killing, the eyes of 11-year old Joe and Alistair lock; the latter later admits that if he had known about the blood-connection, he would have killed Joe as well as his brother. For years, until her death, Joe's mother blamed him for Jim's death, and it's a burden of guilt Joe has carried into adulthood.

Now, a TV show has gotten an idea: put these men together in a room today and see what happens. At the very least, it should make for compelling drama, and the potential for a newsworthy event is not out of the question. Alistair has an idea what might transpire, but his belief that this meeting must happen convinces him to participate. Joe's motivations are more basic - he has concealed a finely honed knife under his coat. It's a testament to what he plans when face-to-face with his personal devil. Alistair is a seeker for something akin to redemption, although he doesn't expect to find it. Joe is on a quest to quell the echoes of his mother's condemning voice, or so he thinks.

Those born in recent years who have no memory of "The Troubles" may find it instructive to do a little research before embarking upon a watching of Five Minutes of Heaven, which assumes viewers have a minimal understanding of the divide between Protestants and Catholics that split Ireland and led to years of bitter, bloody conflicts. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert used two real-life individuals as the models for Alistair and Joe; both collaborated with him on the script although they refused to meet. It's no surprise, then, that the parts of the movie that ring the truest are those that reflect the actual events in the '70s and how the characters evolved after that point. The weakest element is the ending, which is unsatisfying and feels a little like a cheat. This is Hibbert's attempt to force a resolution on a situation where perhaps none is possible.

Five Minutes of Heaven is also guilty of having the characters monologue a little too often - not that talk in general is a bad thing, but there's too much "speechifying" going on here. Alistair and Joe are well-defined early in the film. The actors are good enough that we glimpse the dark scars on their souls without these having to be repeatedly voiced. The movie might have been more tense had it been a little more quiet. Neeson and Nesbitt, however, are so good that narrative hiccups never threaten to lose us, and we don't question the logistics of the orchestrated meeting until after the story has been told. (For example, there appears to be no security at the location and Joe is not searched for weapons. If this situation happened in real life, the potential for violence would certainly be acknowledged and steps would be taken to assure things did not get out of hand.)

Hirschbiegel, who made Downfall (about the last days of Hitler), provides a window into each man's psyche, and those portals are what make Five Minutes of Heaven worth a viewer's 90-minute investment. Alistair, who envisioned the murder as being a steppingstone to greater things, has instead become a sad, lonely man with a partially neutered soul. Joe, wracked by guilt over not acting to stop Alistair, has lived his entire life haunted by that one moment. The victim now seeks to become the predator, and the former predator seems willing to accept the role reversal if it will somehow lead to a lifting of the paralysis that has entombed them both. The buildup to the encounter oozes tension because we are genuinely unsure what will happen when these men finally reconnect. The way all of this is resolved will result in many dissatisfied viewers - it's the kind of artificial half-solution that a screenwriter resorts to when he has written himself into a corner - but the strength of the rest of the film compensates for its last-act shakiness.

Five Minutes of Heaven (United Kingdom, 2009)

Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Cast: Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt, Anamaria Marinca
Screenplay: Guy Hibbert
Cinematography: Ruairi O'Brien
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2009-08-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1