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Film Review: Five Minutes of Heaven

Benjamin Walker
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PARK CITY -- "Five Minutes of Heaven" is based on a true story -- that never happened. That might explain why the film circles and circles its subject but never strikes dramatic pay dirt. This highly emotional, very talky movie, which feels more like a play, seems best suited to television in the U.K., part of Europe and South Africa, where people are coming to grips with the crimes of civil wars and genocidal atrocities.

The film, from German director Oliver Hirschbiegel ("Downfall"), focuses on two men devastated by events 33 years earlier. In 1975, as "the troubles" rage between Protestant and Catholic loyalists in Northern Ireland, Protestant schoolboy Alistair murders a Catholic man while his little brother Joe stands by helplessly. The killing is practically pointless; the youth simply needs to prove himself to his militant buddies.

Three decades later, several years after Alistair has been released from prison, a British TV show invites the men to confront each other before the cameras on a "Truth and Reconciliation"-type reality show. At this point, the story takes a powder.

Joe, who can imagine no outcome other than his attempting to murder Alistair, refuses the invitation. The two men have not met again to this day.

Screenwriter Guy Hibbert holds extensive interviews with each man, asking each what might have happened had they gone through with the confrontation. The men sign off on every action and word, including a bloody fistfight in which both are nearly killed. But, again, none of this ever happened.

Liam Neeson plays the older Alistair as a broken man. He has helped others in and out of prison to reconcile their misdeeds with victims, but he cannot heal himself. He has the memory of that wide-eyed boy in his head every day.

James Nesbitt's Joe is a nervous, chain-smoking, angry man who must live with not only a similar image but also his mother's accusations, to the day she died, that he did "nothing" to prevent his brother's murder.

We notice that Joe has achieved, against all odds, a stable life. He has a house, a wife and two lovely daughters. Joe lives in a sterile flat with no memorabilia from a past he only wishes he could forget.

Both men are haunted -- neither is at peace. This is the consequence of violence; this is what, Alistair says bitterly, no one tells you as you are urged to kill.

But the movie makes these points with ham fists. It is very good at stating the obvious but fails to bring new insight to this age-old morality tale.

Mark Davison plays young Alistair with nervous, mindless energy. The only other character of note is played by Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"), who as the TV show's production assistant opens Joe's eyes to a few truths to which his hatred has blinded him. Curiously, their scenes are the only time the movie sparks to life.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Production: Pathe Pictures, Ruby Films and BBC in association with Element Pictures and North Ireland Screen
Cast: Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt, Anamaria Marinca, Richard Dormer, Mark Davison, Kevin O'Neill
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Screenwriter: Guy Hibbert
Producer: Eoin O'Callaghan
Executive producers: Paul Trijbits, Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe, Patrick Spence, Stephen Wright
Director of photography: Ruairi O'Brien
Production designer: Mark Lowry
Music: David Holmes, Leo Abrahams
Costume designer: Maggie Donnelly
Editor: Hans Funck
Sales agent: Pathe International
No rating, 90 minutes