Five Minutes of Heaven is a noble effort to focus on the human wreckage that lingers in Northern Ireland twelve years after the Good Friday Agreement brought a halt to the violence, and it does enough right to make it worth watching. The humanity of victims and terrorists alike is empathized without excuses made for the people who perpetrated the violence, and Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt are both excellent. Unfortunately, director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film drags far too often, with needlessly drawn out scenes and rambling monologues that don’t offer character insights. Still, the moments of raw power where the accumulated damage of 35 years is all too apparent make up for the film’s shortcomings. On the whole, it’s a good 90 minute feature that could’ve been a terrific short film.
Five Minutes of Heaven begins in Belfast of 1975. Seventeen-year-old Alistair Little (Mark Davison) is about to tackle his first big assignment for the Ulster Volunteer Force. He begged his superiors for a chance to kill a Catholic and he’s gotten his chance. James Griffin is the target and Alistair’s outside the house, ready to pull the trigger when he notices a little boy on the sidewalk. He doesn’t realize the boy is James’ younger brother Joe; years later, he’ll admit that if he’d known, he’d have killed him. Momentarily thrown, Alistair pulls himself back together and puts three bullets in James’ head.
The film resumes in present day Northern Ireland, where Joe and Alistair are in separate cars en route to a television taping. The network wants to bring killers and victims together in the post-reconciliation era and the two men have agreed to meet. Alistair (Neeson) seems to have done all right for himself after serving his twelve year sentence, but that night still weighs on him. He’s constantly carrying the guilt of what he put the Griffen family through. Still, he’s the model of composure compared to Joe (Nesbitt). Tense, anxious, and babbling in his chauffeured car, Joe’s had 35 years to agonize. His father died of a heart attack a few months after the murder. An older brother overdosed a little later. Joe’s mother blamed him for James’ death until her dying day. Nobody’s been able to move on from the tragedy. Maybe confronting Alistair will finally allow Joe to make his peace with that night.
Or maybe Joe has something other in mind than making peace.
Both Neeson and Nesbitt are outstanding and when Five Minutes of Heaven works, it’s deeply moving. Neeson plays Alistair as much sadder and wiser than the teenager with the gun. He’s ready to explain why he did what he did, but he’s not offering excuses, either. Nesbitt gives a fine portrayal of a man just barely managing to hold his life together, while making it uncertain that he’ll be able to pull even that off for much longer. The scenes surrounding the interview have a raw emotional power and suspense level that’s staggering.
Unfortunately, Hirschbiegel doesn’t recreate that raw power in the rest of the movie. Too many scenes left me feeling distanced and detached, waiting for the film to pick up steam again. Five Minutes of Heaven moves in fits and starts, wobbling between affecting and lethargic moments, never matching the brilliance of those crucial scenes prior to the interview.
Ultimately, the sum total of affecting moments coupled with the fine performances put this one in the win column. Five Minutes of Heaven could have been so much better, but the parts that work make the movie worthwhile.