The Troubles, Northern Ireland's 30-year cycle of sectarian violence, seems to be catching up with the Holocaust for the sheer number and range of movies it has inspired. And, as with Holocaust-era films, just when you think there can't possibly be another cinematic twist on this devastating period, someone finds a new way in: Witness Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Five Minutes of Heaven," an intriguing, what-if take examining both sides of the Northern Irish conflict.
Based on two real-life survivors of the Troubles, "Heaven" is divided into three distinct sections of varying success. The first act, set in 1975, effectively re-creates the actual night in which 16-year-old Protestant militant Alistair Little (Mark Davison) murdered an innocent young Catholic man in front of the victim's brother, 11-year-old Joe Griffin (Kevin O'Neill), simply to gain the respect of his unionist mates in the Ulster Volunteer Force. It's a tense, evocatively shot and designed time capsule.
The next two fictionalized acts take place 33 years later and answer the question, "What if Little and Griffin were to meet up again as adults?" Writer Guy Hibbert concocts a slightly stagey, tonally uneven but highly watchable scenario that finds the two men brought together by a TV talk show eager to exploit their loaded reunion. The now older Little (played by Liam Neeson), who served 12 years in prison for murder, has become a renowned expert on conflict resolution, while Griffin (James Nesbitt) is a nerve-wracked, chain-smoking family man still obsessed with his brother's senseless death and its ruinous aftermath (efficiently told in several swift, heartbreaking flashbacks).
Though Griffin is apoplectic about seeing Little again, he shows up not for the potential truth-and-reconciliation party but to carry out what's, frankly, a half-baked plan to kill his brother's assassin and, thus, achieve his long-awaited "five minutes of heaven."
Hibbert jettisons this potentially nail-biting showdown in favor of a somewhat contrived though emotionally satisfying third-act confrontation between Little and Griffin in the latter's now-abandoned childhood home, the site of his brother's murder. Neeson and Nesbitt shine brightest here as their characters' truest selves emerge, with Little's measured perspective on the terrorist mind-set a haunting mirror into more recent world events.
Ultimately, "Five Minutes of Heaven" is stronger as a whole than its individual parts. It's a well-performed piece that perhaps required a more calibrated hand than Hirschbiegel's proves here. Still, as the acclaimed director of "Downfall," 2004's epic, Oscar-nominated take on Hitler's last days before the fall of Berlin, he was a creditable choice to helm this generally involving and thought-provoking film.
'Five Minutes of Heaven'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: At Landmark's Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles