Thirty Years of Hell
Part of the opening sequence of Five Minutes of Heaven will be repeated later, relived in the voiceover memory of an anguished man who cannot be understood unless “you . . . know the man I was.” In October 1975, he was seventeen and a Protestant in Lurgan. At fifteen, he was a Tartan gang member, another Ulster Volunteer Force “boy” in the making with “a mindset” to kill Catholics “to be somebody, walk into a bar ten feet tall and hear applause.”
With British soldiers patrolling Belfast streets whose sectarian violence is plastered on TV news, he (Mark Davison) puts three .38 bullets through a family rowhouse window into Jim Griffin (Gerard Jordan), a Catholic two years his senior suspected of threats against a Protestant worker. Staring from a ski mask, he spares an eleven-year-old kicking a soccer ball against the house, but would coldly have killed Joe (Kevin O’Neill), too, had he recognized him as the victim’s brother.
Far from embracing any “cause,” the killer withdrew into himself and has not awakened a single day since without young Joe’s haunting his mind. Following a dozen years’ imprisonment and some film-expository counseling sessions, Alistair Little (Liam Neeson) is an empty shell who coaches incarcerated groups on coming to terms with remorse and conscience.
Married with two daughters, Joe (James Nesbitt) has demons, too, visions of his hysterical mother’s (Niamh Cusack) rejecting him for witnessing without intervening. The parents’ early deaths and despair among remaining siblings tore the family unit apart, manifest in the deserted shambles of their house at 37 Hull Street.
This much is re-created fact, the two men’s names real, while the rest is scriptwriter Guy Hibbert’s what-if face-to-face of the two in middle age. Articulate and self-effacing Little insists it is not about touted forgiveness or reconciliation, that the process requires honesty on his part and, himself beyond repair, may help the other put aside the past to live for his present family today and tomorrow.
The Northern brogues need adjusting to for American ears, as the two are chauffeured separately to River Finn Center, the baronial estate where they are to confront one another in front of the cameras. German director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s previous films have been merciless in dissecting emotions surrounding violence and authoritarianism, and, in the cars and at the mansion, scenes and interludes reveal nervous Joe’s shaky grip and Alistair’s uncertainty underneath outward cool.
Another odious reality show is the occasion, the whole orchestrated with kid gloves by CA-TV staff and technicians under smarmy director Michael (Richard Dormer), whose consideration for the participants does not conceal an overriding concern that the show go on.
Offering up lame jokes and smoking only less that he talks, Joe harbors man’s revenge, heaven’s eye-for-eye justice, but on a battlemented balcony learns something about Alistair from sympathetic TV crewmember Vika (Anamaria Marinca) from Vladivostok.
Mishaps and nerves delay the meeting, while Alistair sits downstairs and delivers a trial-run monologue condemning the taking of any life in the name of anything. Herein the message, as the film abandons narrative momentum concerning the destructive effects equally on victim and perpetrator. Instead, we are told, rather than shown, that potential young recruits of whatever stripe need to be educated against misguided fanaticism which will enlist and swallow up their individual wills; updating too far afield, the lecture embraces the Muslim world, as well.
Dramatic impetus stalled, as it were, there is no path other than for someone to back out and bolt. Given that, and the failure of resolution for the moment, another confrontation is rigged. Alas for Five Minutes of Heaven, it is tacked on in minutes, followed by a set speech through blood and, at the last, of all things a hasty cellphone call.
If only it were that easy.
(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)