Five Minutes of Heaven (IFC Films, NR)

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fiveminthumb.jpgFive Minutes of Heavenis a frustrating inconsistent film which provides a vehicle for some truly outstanding acting but is ultimately done in by its own cleverness.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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In 1975 in the town of Lurgan, County Armagh, 17-year-old Alistair Little shot and killed 19-year-old Jim Griffen. The murder was committed in cold blood: Little fired three times through a window while Griffen watched television in his family’s living room. The only witness was Griffen’s 11-year-old brother Joe. Little served 12 years in prison for the crime while Joe Griffen went on to marry and raise a family but remained tortured by guilt at his failure to act. The ostensible motivation for Griffen’s murder was a shipyard labor dispute, but it’s equally clear that Little wanted to make his bones and become a player in the violence which was endemic in his community.
 
This much is fact and while it’s a sad story it’s also an overly familiar one. But screenwriter Guy Hibbert had a clever idea: what if he created a fictional meeting between the two men in adulthood? The imagined occasion is a BBC interview show whose motivations may be noble (truth, reconciliation, and all that) or exploitation (Jerry Springer for the intellectual set). We never find out because the meeting doesn’t happen (one of the men calls it off at the last minute) but it does serve as the catalyst for a confrontation which offers hope that perhaps the cycle of hate and violence, at least among these two men, has been broken.

Five Minutes of Heaven is a frustrating inconsistent film which provides a vehicle for some truly outstanding acting but is ultimately done in by its own cleverness. It also betrays its origins as a television film and its three parts—a re-enactment of the murder, the lead-up to the television program, and the final confrontation—don’t work well together, although each has moments of excellence. In the interests of perspective I should note that the Sundance jury liked this film better than I did and awarded it the World Cinema prizes for directing (Oliver Hirschbiegel) and screenplay.

The heart of the film is a character study of the two men and the contrast between them could not be greater. James Nesbitt delivers a show-stealing performance as the tormented yet intensely human Joe Griffen (the “five minutes of heaven” he longs for would be realized by him murdering Little) while Liam Neeson as the adult Alistair Little seems chillingly removed from both past and present. After release from prison Little made a career of working for violence prevention projects from South Africa to Kosovo to Ulster, and has developed a smoothly polished speech about the murder which is heard in the film’s opening and again as he prepares to go on camera at the BBC.

As you would expect from a BBC production there’s also great acting in the smaller roles, including Anamaria Marinca as a BBC production assistant, Barry McEvoy and Richard Orr as the chauffeurs bringing Little and Griffen to the television studio and Mark David (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the adult Neeson) as the young Alistair. Five Minutes of Heaven is definitely worth a look but demands that you stay with each moment for what it has to offer, and concern yourself correspondingly less with the structure of the film and how it works as a whole. | Sarah Boslaugh
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