There’s a feeling of gathered moral clarity — a certain down-to-it, no-mucking-about, time-to-face-it vibe — in Oliver Hirschbiegel‘s Five Minutes of Heaven (IFC Films, 8.21). It’s basically a film about two veterans of the Irish troubles in the ’70s (Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt) looking back at a brutal political killing and trying to do or say something that will put the ghosts to rest. Except ghosts have a tendency to hang around. The darker the memory, the more they rule.
Split between Ireland’s present and its violent past in the early ’70s, Heaven is basically about Neeson’s character of 16 or 17 having shot a young boy from the other side (now that I’m thinking back I can’t remember which is Protestant and Catholic), and dealing with the victim’s still enraged and inconsolable younger brother (Nesbitt) when an Irish TV show brings them together to talk it over and come to grips.
Nesbitt’s character seems a bit dim — okay, intellectually challenged — but the ferocity of his feelings about Neeson is quite penetrating. They’re so intense that he can’t handle them, as evidenced by his darting eyes and hyper breathlessness and a general sense of a looming panic attack.
And the sad, guilt-ravaged expression on Neeson’s face seems tethered to some awful place deep in his soul. One look at him and you know there’s no way he’ll ever get past what he did, and that he himself knows this best of all.
Five Minutes of Heaven is obviously a smaller film than Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, a jarring look at the Third Reich’s final hours in a bunker in Berlin, but it’s about something that not only matters in terms of Ireland’s past — political murder and the personal rage that not only follows but stays alive for decades — but applies to today’s Islamic jihadists.
The film is so tight and focused that Guy Hibbert‘s screenplay could have been a theatre piece to start with, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. Plays tend to have more of a lean and sharpened quality than films as a general rule, and there’s no denying that Five Minutes of Heaven is some kind of hard diamond.
My only real problem is with the title. It alludes to the pleasure of getting revenge, but it’s obviously too oblique to mean anything to Joe Popcorn. It doesn’t mean that much to me and I’ve seen the film. I believe that if you lose control and wind up killing someone you hate, you might feel the satisfaction for 10 or 15 seconds, at most. If you’re any kind of human being you’ll be feeling the guilt pangs in less than a minute. How Hibbert figures that the pleasure would last for five minutes — an eternity in such a context — is beyond me.