Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Five Minutes of Heaven is a hypnotic drama about the power of forgiveness and the heavy weight of our pasts using the violent era of the mid 1970s in Northern Ireland as a prism through which to explore its heady themes. Hirschbiegel, directing from a snappy, knowing script by Guy Hibbert, expertly portrays the gut-wrenching emotions and keeps the film from being a stylistic exercise. Rather he perfectly captures deep, penetrating moments and encapsulates an era of violence in riveting detail.
Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt play two men talked into meeting for a television program. Neeson was a young USF member who shot Nesbitt’s brother in cold blood in front of Nesbitt as a young child. The tension of the film rises and abates expertly throughout. First, with its introductory scene, we witness the violent incident in a near-perfect build up. The tension slowly rises again as the meeting between the two men inches forward with unexpected results. Will Nesbitt kill Neeson? Is reconciliation possible?
There are moments where Hirschbiegel draws on big emotions in a bit of over dramatic style but the two performances by the film’s leads make this film stand out and ground the film in real, raw emotion. Neeson is unflappable as the former killer making amends. Neeson has a cool resolve throughout that can be off-putting at first but is slowly revealed as a shield as we see the psychological scars that have been left on him. However, James Nesbitt as the boy who grows up to be the angry, weak-willed man hell-bent on revenge is truly remarkable. A fiery, raw, emotive performance that’s hard to forget, Hirschbiegel often leaves the camera focused on Nesbitt for long periods of time and for good reason as we see not just boiling rage but a cavalcade of contradictions and emotions wash across him.
Though the film can be hard to understand with the rough Irish brogue throughout, the film makes its points with a careful brush. With a spare, yet unsettling score and a rich attention to detail, Hirschbiegel gets so much right about the conflicts, both inner and outer, regarding the groups involved and the era and the instilled anger, hatred, and deep regret that characterizes these characters. If anything, the characters feel too entrapped by the one incident and we never see their lives past that. The violent incident so characterizes and defines these characters’ lives that the well of anger and regret can feel one note at times but Nesbitt and Neeson ground the film’s emotions into believability in places where the script skirts the edges of it. It’s a harrowing film because of how small and focused it is. The deep, penetrating themes on the cycles of violence and where that takes us as a people and a culture are heartfelt, moving, and ultimately heartbreaking. The final scene of the film may be a bit too on the nose but much of the rest of the film knows when to hold back, pull back, and let the sentiment of the scenes play out as is and that is when the film truly shines.