So many movies set in Northern Ireland are about the Troubles that we might justifiably ask, why another? "Five Minutes of Heaven" is far from the best of the breed, but it does at least take a new tack. It's about the confrontation between two men on opposite sides of the agony 33 years after the violence that linked their lives.
Alistair (Mark Davison) is 17 in 1975 and already a soldier in the pro-England Protestant underground in his hometown of Lurgan. He carries out the assassination of a Catholic local in full view of the man's terrified, younger preteen brother Joe (Kevin O'Neill), whom he decides to spare.
The aftermath of this horror is that Alistair, having spent 12 years in prison, has repented and made a large career for himself as a conflict resolution expert. Joe, meanwhile, has a wife and two young daughters and still lives in Lurgan. A factory laborer, he seethes with anger at how his life has been ripped apart by Alistair.
Since Alistair is played as an adult by Liam Neeson, and Joe by James Nesbitt, the contrast between the two is stark. Neeson carries his gravitas like a heavy winter coat while Nesbitt, who is best remembered for his work in the Troubles-themed "Bloody Sunday," is a live wire. Both actors are from Northern Ireland, and you can see in their intensity – or in the case of Nesbitt, his overintensity – how much this story means to them.
Both Alistair and Joe are based on actual people, though the director Oliver Hirschbiegel ("Downfall") and his screenwriter Guy Hibbert have spun a fantasy about what might have happened had the two men met three decades later for a televised reconciliation. (Both men are still alive, but have never met. Neeson chose not to meet the real Alistair but Nesbitt spent many hours with Joe in preparation for his role.)
The run-up to the TV taping gives the filmmakers an opportunity to engage in some rather heavy-handed media-bashing. With the exception of one of the production assistants (played by the marvelous Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca), the crew is replete with hustling hypocrites less interested in healing than in grabbing ratings. This entire section of the movie plays out like a stage play that's been barely adapted to the screen. In fact, much could be said for the entire movie, which is neatly divided into three acts. Compounding the problem is that Nesbitt acts as if a time bomb were about to go off inside him. This may be psychologically accurate but a sharper director would have had him tone it down. Joe's nonstop tumult is so over the top that it vaults him right out of the movie.
The filmmakers have set up Alistair and Joe as embodiments of an ongoing tragedy, and sometimes the allegorical weight threatens to crush them. When the two finally square off, following the TV show catastrophe, their grappling has an almost biblical fury. (The early assassination scene is even more powerful.) Hirschbiegel at least gets the violence right. He had better – his movie is all about its consequences.
But he is too quick to offer up pat resolutions to that violence. The title of the film refers to the momentary bliss that Joe says he would feel if he killed Alistair in revenge. But it could also be taken for the peace he feels knowing he has finally moved on. The uneasy amity between these two men is a wonderful ideal but, the way it's played out in "Five Minutes of Heaven," it seems more symbolic than real.