Five Minutes of Heaven is a movie, but it should be a play. It’s full of internal struggles, long monologues, soul-searching, lengthy scenes, soliloquies — the exact elements that would make it a gripping theatrical experience, but make it feel a bit overwrought as a movie.
During the 1970s, amid the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, a young gang member commits murder, and the victim’s 7-year-old son witnesses it.
Flash-forward to the present day, when the media has arranged a diplomatic meeting between the killer (Liam Neeson) and the witness (James Nesbitt), who has cultivated a life of bitterness. Nesbitt plans to get “five minutes of heaven,” the moments of closure and happiness he expects when he kills Neeson.
All the big themes are there: revenge, grief, forgiveness, redemption, guilt, all spelled out and discussed explicitly. Both Neeson and Nesbitt narrate their internal thoughts, underlining and amplifying every note. “See,” the movie yells, “this is how they feel.”
Which is too bad: The acting — Neeson’s mature and steady understanding of his crimes and Nesbitt’s twitchy neurotic anger — is brilliant enough to sell the complexity of their emotions. Their acting is deeper than the internal monologues they recite.
The movie’s pacing, tone and cinematography make Five Minutes seem like it was filmed in the 1970s. On one hand, German director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) establishes some veracity to the early scenes. The shaky cam and modest production values — gray and claustrophobic — give Five Minutes an intimate, documentary feel. On the other hand, the closely observed, realistic presentation makes the major moments of heavy-handed symbolism ring even more false. (The bullet shatters a picture of a kitten and splatters it with blood.)
The ending, fortunately, avoids the worst of this. It’s neither poetically tragic nor a Steven Spielberg-style everything-works-out denouement. It’s bitter, painful, messy and uneasy. When one person hurts another badly enough, there’s no such thing as closure. There’s only the never-ending struggle to forgive, and the never-ending ache to be forgiven. Nothing gets solved. Nothing ends.