Five Minutes of Heaven is exactly what you think it is, as long as what you think it is concerns a broken man’s desire to spend five minutes with and possibly kill his brother’s murderer. Directed by German filmmaker Oliver Hirschbiegel (Das Experiment, The Invasion), Five Minutes of Heaven won several International awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Set in 1975, against the backdrop of the violence of Northern Ireland, the first act recreates the actual murder of 19-year-old sectarian dockworker, Jim Griffin, by 17-year-old Alistair Little (Mark Davison), a pro-England Protestant who’d asked for the assignment as a means to gaining his badge of honor. Little shot Griffin in the head three times, while Griffin’s 11-year-old brother — out playing with his soccer ball — was an unfortunate witness to the act. Little spared the little brother, but was ultimately sentenced to 12 years in prison for the crime.
The rest of the movie is fictional — it imagines a scenario where Little (Liam Neeson) is asked to meet Griffin’s little brother, Joe (James Nesbitt) in the present. Since the murder, Little has become something of an expert on conflict resolution among violent groups. Joe, meanwhile — who has a wife and two daughters — has been plagued by his brother’s death all his life. His father died of a heart attack soon after the murder, and Joe’s mother had blamed Joe for not doing anything to save his brother. Little and Joe agree to meet for a television documentary: Little to find closure, Joe to avenge his brother’s death, and the documentarians to possibly capture the high drama of reconciliation.
Most of Five Minutes of Heaven alternates back and forth between Little and Joe, as they discuss — first with their drivers on the way to the shoot, and later with the documentary makers — their feelings about the arranged meeting and each other. Little is remorseful, but is understanding enough not to expect Joe to forgive him. Meanwhile, Joe is a nervous wreck, alternating between mumbles and outbursts, and doesn’t want to hear anything sympathetic about Little, which might prevent him from avenging his brother’s senseless murder.
Ultimately, the televised meeting doesn’t happen, but Little and Joe do eventually confront one another in the third act.
Five Minutes of Heaven is a fairly staid movie. It doesn’t try to vilify the murderer, nor does it attempt to lionize the victim. But neither does it delve particularly deep into either character. It’s not a bad film by any means — films that cover the conflict in Ireland rarely are. Nobody does it for the money, clearly, and the people involved tend to feel passionate about the subject (how many of these movies has Neeson participated in?).
Moreover, Five Minutes is well intentioned, deftly constructed, and features the sort of performance you’d expect from Neeson (and Nesbitt). Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer much insight into either the conflict or the two main characters. Neither does it posses much in the way of tension or drama. It wants to explore the the emotional effects of decades’ old wounds, but it never gets beneath the scabs. It just picks at the edges before drifting aimlessly toward an anti-climax completely out of character from the rest of the movie.