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Five Minutes of Heaven (2009) ****

May 5, 2010

written by: Guy Hibbert
produced by: Eoin O’Callaghan & Stephen Wright
directed by: Oliver Hirschbiegel
rated R (for language and some violence)
90 min.
U.S. release date:  August 29, 2009
DVD & Blu-ray release date: April 27, 2010
This is a film that reappeared on my cinema radar last December while perusing the aisles of my local Blockbuster. That’s right, I still hit up my local brick and mortar venue on occasion and it’s a good thing too because Blockbuster was the only place carrying this gem of a film. Not even netflix, go figure. Thing is, when I first saw a trailer for this film (a whole year before I saw it starring at me on the store shelf) I searched and searched for a release date and came up with nothing. To my knowledge, I never saw it released theatrically although it did premiere at Sundance in 2009 and even won some awards there.
Apparently, IFC Films cut a deal to distribute the film back in August 2009 via On Demand and, surprisingly, exclusive through Blockbuster.  I’m grateful they did because this compelling film wound up on my Top Ten Films of 2009 list.
When Alistair Little (Liam Neeson) was seventeen years old he shot and killed Jim Griffin, the older brother of Joe Griffin (James Nesbitt), who, at eleven years-old, was the lone witness of the cold-blooded incident. This was not an uncommon occurence in Lurgen, Northern Ireland back in 1977 due to the violence between Protestants and Catholics called The Troubles, but it became an event that would be life-altering for both young men. It’s bad enough that Joe grew up under the shadow of the death he helplessly witnessed, but being by his mother for not preventing the murderer and seeing the deterioration of his family, has been nothing less than crushing. Alistair wound up spending a little over a decade in prison and has since devoted his time and energy speaking out against violence, as a way of personal penance. Joe has gone on to marry and have a family of his own but he is plagued by feelings of guilt and anger that keep the genuinely nice guy from living a fulfilling life.  
A scene from IFC Films' Five Minutes of Heaven (2009) 
Now, over thirty years later, a news television program focusing on reconciliation wants to get Joe and Alistair in the same room to see if any closure can come from their encounter. Now, just picture that right there. Imagine the thoughts racing through the minds of both men. How they must be playing out in their heads what will transpire when they meet face to face. Now imagine two powerful performances by the two leads that bring a palpable anxiety and tension to the obvious feelings of remorse and hate brewing underneath their skin. That’s what you’ll find here.
Nesbitt is sensational as a broken man obsessed with ending Alistair’s life. A volatile man trapped by fear, who is more concerned with the five minutes it would take to act out his vendetta than he is any peaceful resolution.  While Nesbitt’s ticking-bomb fervor radiates throughout there is an indication of a gentleness, a kindness. This sneaks through in his interaction with Viki (Anamaria Marinca), a helpful technical aide on the set who sees him as a person, not a ratings opportunity or a victim. Neeson is his equal, playing a broken man as well but one who despite his motivational speeches (where he encourages others to steer clear of violence) cannot seem to cope with his own violence which ruined another man’s life.  It’s especially rewarding ro see Neeson here considering his last handful of films have squandered his talents. Both actors lose themselves in their emotional roles, successfully portraying who need to face each other head on, in order to face the future.
Film Still
Working from a script by Guy Hibbert, director Oliver Hirschbiegel uses the same tone and style he delivered with his earlier film, “Downfall” for this story. The film could easily be adapted into a stage play, as it is divided into three acts. Opening in the 70’s, we see young Alistair (Mark Davison) working with the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force), excited to make a man of himself and an example to all by taking a life. The second act of the film revolves around the two men separately agreeing to meet at an estate (looking more like a castle) where the program will be filmed. The final act releases the emotional restrain and unresolve that culminated from the previous acts in an inevitable confrontation between Alistair and Joe. 
There are times when Hirschbiegel over reaches his boundaries as a director in several ways. While he chooses his color palette and camera angles well, it would have helped if he just relied on the strength of his actors a little more. Whenever there are flashback sequences and repeated internal monologues there’s a tendency to over explain instead of just letting the images on the screen do the talking. A director needs to allow all the elements that inhabit the motion picture on the screen to tell the story on its own. Granted, there is often exposition and set-up in films yet, as always, I will subscribe to the old adage of “less is more”
Despite those minor flaws, this is a smart and poignant film dealing with difficult topics and emotions in an honest and real way. It’s sad when a film that touches important themes like guilt, anger, retribution and reconciliation falls off the radar. Unfortunately, for many, this compelling film wasn’t even a blip on their radar.  Regardless, this remains a film in which tough issues are examined, and as is the case in reality, are never neatly or clearly resolved.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. windi permalink
    May 10, 2010 9:23 am

    I’ve seen this on the shelves at Blockbuster, but haven’t picked it up yet. I think I’ll make that a goal for this weekend. I love Liam Neeson! He’s such a wonderful actor, and this role seems spot on for him….


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