Troubles Every Day
By Damon Smith

Five Minutes of Heaven
Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel, U.K., IFC Films

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Five Minutes of Heaven deals indirectly with the Troubles, the legacy of violence that engulfed Northern Ireland for three decades until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 put an official end to the discord. Though this history is vividly invoked in gritty newsreel footage in the film’s opening minutes, and plays a crucial role in the backstory of Hirschbiegel’s fraught protagonists—one Protestant, the other Catholic—the true subject of his arid, minimal social drama is not violence or politics, but the more delicate act of healing. Or rather, the possibility of rapprochement between adversaries. Instead of pitching us headlong into the past and fastening onto heroic intrigue, like the new Fifty Dead Men Walking, Hirschbiegel limns the present-day inner turmoil of two men linked by fate. One is a killer, the other his victim’s brother. It’s a gaunt two-man show, told in three acts.

Uneven but absorbing at its extremities, Five Minutes of Heaven is a personal film, not so much for German director Hirschbiegel (Downfall), but for Irish screenwriter Guy Hibbert, who devoted two years to researching the story of a victim and a perpetrator on opposite sides of the political divide. The script, based on extensive interviews with both men, dramatizes the real-life murder and then imagines what would happen if the two met to engage in a supervised dialogue. Liam Neeson plays Alistair Little, a former convict turned anti-violence counselor who, 33 years earlier, assassinated a Belfast local in plain view of the man’s youngest sibling, Joe Griffin (James Nesbitt), hoping to beef up his gutsy, streetwise reputation among Protestant loyalists in the Ulster Volunteer Forces. (The film opens in 1975 and tracks the events leading up to the crime, before shifting to the present.) A BBC producer (Richard Dormer) has asked them to meet for the cameras, hoping the emotional confrontation will lead to “truth and reconciliation.” Both agree to the televised confab, but for entirely different reasons: Alistair seeks to face his guilt head-on, and perhaps in some way offer closure to the bloke whose life he has scarred since childhood. Joe wants revenge, and intends on having his “five minutes of heaven,” damn the consequences.

Five Minutes of Heaven, which won Hirschbiegel a directing laurel in the Sundance World Dramatic Competition, is scrupulously lean, but it feels too much like a filmed version of a stage production. Hibbert’s script trades in melodramatic dialogue, choppy pacing, and false climaxes as it focuses on the psychology of blame and forgiveness that bring Alistair and Joe into each other’s orbit, while leaving in suspenseful tension the question of how that conflict will be resolved. Neeson and Nesbitt are both dedicated performers, and each brings a gradient of visceral verismilitude to his role—a somber pensiveness for the former, and an irritable, pained restlessness for the latter. But there isn’t much character development beyond the basic conflict to keep us invested in their tortured path to equanimity. Alistair is a figure of melancholy and regret—a “broken man,” Joe learns—who lives alone in a nondescript flat examining his conscience. Joe is caustic, edgy, slightly unhinged, and plagued by childhood memories of his mother (seen in a few garish flashbacks), who cruelly blames him for his older brother’s demise. It’s difficult, however, to accord either much sympathy when they’re such coarsely drawn types, apparently devoid of any experience apart from the life-defining, weirdly intimate circumstance that links them; the actors, furthermore, aren’t given much leeway to project beyond the narrow emotional bandwidth they’ve been assigned, a stricture that makes the film feel as desolate as the wounded men it depicts.

Five Minutes does have a raw authenticity in its first flashback and briefly fires to life during the penultimate sequence, a tumultuous mano a mano showdown in an abandoned tenement. But the middle sags. Hirschbiegel introduces Joe and Alistair as they are chauffeured to a pastoral manse for the BBC shoot, cutting back and forth between them in a tedious round of character-establishing close-ups. Neeson looks sad and weary; Nesbitt mutters to himself and chain-smokes, while his voiceover overexplains his thought process and occludes anything we might read on his pained, expressive face. Once they arrive at their destination, Joe is chaperoned by an East European production assistant (Anamaria Marinca, making the most of a bit role) to whom, in a wildly unguarded moment, he nearly discloses his intentions, as he rails against the format of the program. “The trouble with me,” he bitterly confides, “is I’ve got all the wrong feelings.” Meanwhile, downstairs, Alistair offers a maundering speech in an introductory taping session to a rapt crew. (“And the Muslims now ... you know the kids now are like I was then,” he says. “They need to hear those voices now, stopping them from thinking that killing is good.”) One wishes for more riveting exchanges than these. But what’s most unsettling is how a film preaching peace manages to be most cathartic and compelling when it depicts acts of violence.

Recently, other entries in the burgeoning truth-and-reconciliation subgenre have sought to illuminate gruesome past events in wartorn countries like South Africa, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Lebanon through the eyes of individual truth-seekers. Ari Folman’s lyrical Waltz with Bashir examined the mysteries of memory, repression, and lapsed time to splendid effect, making politics both personal and universal. Lesser efforts like Hotel Rwanda and John Boorman’s In My Country propped up caricatures of good and evil as exercises in moral mass education. Hirschbiegel’s film is a rudimentary, modestly scaled affair, neither visually poetic nor overtly didactic, yet its tripartite structure lacks dramatic focus and the urgent conceptual through-line to coalesce around its mission: presumably to spark thought and soul-searching conversation. Despite such noble aims, Five Minutes of Heaven merely flattens the complexities of anguish, speculating that physical confrontation might be the only reliable mechanism for sating a vengeful heart. Obviously, it was a labor of love for everyone involved (Neeson, the film’s most bankable star, signed on during a three-week break in his schedule), but it hardly sustains one’s interest in the way that other films about the Irish conflict—Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday, Steve McQueen’s Hunger—have, with equally stripped-down aesthetics and decidedly solemn tones. Heaven beckons, on some level, but never quite musters the drive to hook us on its twin peaks of haunted human casualty.