Five Minutes of Heaven - Movie Review

By Jonathan W. Wind

Five Minutes of Heaven is a movie about revenge and redemption, bravely tackling these subjects with only mixed results, asking if the pull towards retaliation is greater than the pull towards forgiveness.
"I'll have my Five Minutes of Heaven" shouts Joe Griffin, a Catholic, as the possible sweet revenge he has waited so long for becomes ever more imminent.
Based on a true story, in Belfast in 1975, 11 year old Joe witnesses his older brother's murder and is blamed by his own mother and family for not stopping it somehow. His family is broken and his young life becomes a darkness of incrimination and remorse. The killer, 16 year old Alistair Little is caught and serves 12 years in prison for the murder.
In the sectarian conflict of Northern Ireland - it was Protestants against Catholics, Christians fighting Christians. Whose god would win?. It all seemed so Medieval, Americans seemed mostly sorry but uncomprehending; was it worth dying for? Ireland was a place where an integrated school meant it allowed Protestants and Catholics, just how could Americans relate? Northern Ireland became a hotbed of violence where enemies could only be identified by their credentials; "are you a Protestant, what about you?"
The film begins with a gruesome reenactment of the murder. Featuring young actors with strong, sometimes incomprehensible brogues, the film continues with an imagined scenario of Joe and Alistair's consensual meeting thirty three years later. A reality show production team judges themselves capable of healing the rift between the two men, Alistair is 49 and Joe is 44 as the scene shifts to the their first meeting. Joe has labored in an egg carton factory all his life, unhappy and obsessed, revenge pesters his every moment. Alistair has served his time, but he too is haunted with the senselessness of his crimes. When finally they do meet they both suffer terribly, but they are then able to move on with their lives, at last forgiving themselves, but not each other.
Liam Neeson plays the adult killer, and James Nesbitt the grown witness - they are two of Northern Ireland's most celebrated actors. Neeson actually began his career in Belfast in 1975 and is recognized for his heroic intensity in such films as Schindler's List. James Nesbitt appeared in Bloody Sunday and Woody Allen's Match Point, his nervous performance convinces you that not a moment goes by without him experiencing his anguish.
Five Minutes of Heaven took four years to bring to the screen. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel has directed four other films including Downfall, about WWII in 2002. Cinematographer Ruairi O'Brien, faced with mostly grim scenes and vistas opted for a documentary film style crossed with a smoother professional look, handcam shakeups in forgotten neighborhoods and dramatic upangle studies of impressive Irish profiles.
Screenwriter Guy Hibbert separately interviewed the two men over a two year period, and created situations using their words and feelings, Joe Griffin and Alistair Little never actually met. Hibbert has written other films based on interviews, such as Omagh, also about the conflict in N. Ireland. Original music by David Holmes helps maintain the intensity and focus, his scores include Ocean's 12 and Ocean's 13.
Labeled a political thriller, Five Minutes of Heaven is predictable and heavy-handed, and key elements of the story are revealed too early. The movie concludes that no one escapes the ravages of violence, both sides suffer and redemption is elusive.
I say see it, but wait for the DVD, you may need the subtitles anyway. It's a sad story made that much sadder by lingering madness, uninspired cinematography, a hair-brained reality show encounter, and the conclusion that the pain never really ends.

© 2009 - Jonathan W. Wind - Air Date: 09/30/09
Movie Magazine International