May 3, 2010

Five Minutes of Heaven

Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****

In Five Minutes Of Heaven, director Oliver Hirschbiegel (who has given us the fine films Downfall and The Experiment) and award-winning Brit TV writer Guy Hibbert join forces to create a surprisingly effective combination of real characters and invented scenario. Having seen a number of films (the not-very-good drama In My Countryand the very good documentary My Neighbor, My Killer come immediately to mind) that deal with or glance off the now-popular "Truth and Reconciliation" motif -- which first took hold in post-Apartheid South Africa then to Rwanda, the states formed from the former Yugoslavia, and apparently Ireland -- I can truthfully say that Five Minutes of Heaven (the title refers to what one of the two characters hopes desperately to experience) is not simply the best of this “T&R” lot but a remarkable film in every way.

In it, a TV crew is planning a program in which the remaining member of a family whose older son was shot by a terrorist three decades back, is, for the first time since the killing, to meet, speak to and perhaps "reconcile" with his brother's assassin. On camera, of course. ("If you feel your eyes welling up, just go with it," he is counseled by the producer. "But look up, not down.") This is heady stuff, but it is also something ripe for heavy-handed satire. Thankfully, Hirschbiegel and Hibbert refrain from the latter and stick with the former.

In the role of assassin (now a man dedicated to helping the victims of terrorism) is a dark and troubled Liam Neeson, while the younger brother, now a grown man, married with family, is played by James Nesbitt (who also starred in Bloody Sunday). It's one of Neeson's finest performances; he brings up reams of buried feeling until they hover just below the surface. The actor gives dialog that could easily sound “preachy” such resonance and immediacy that, should he ever decide to stop acting, I would suggest a career as a pitchman or a prophet: He’s that convincing.

Even so, it is Nesbitt who gives the best performance by an actor I have seen all year and maybe in the past several. On tenterhooks for the entire movie, he drags us along with him, feeling every dreadful, fearful moment. I would have called him a shoo-in at awards time were it not that this is a small film which few people bothered to catch.

But the film, which is short and to the point, will endure because it honors its theme by forcing us to see and feel what its two protagonists have seen and felt (and done -- or not done), now and in the past. It comes closest of any of the several filmed approaches to truth and reconciliation by making us understand how extraordinarily difficult the reconciliation part can be. (Only Disgrace, which I will cover soon, manages to outdo it in this department.) What it takes to achieve real reconciliation is something absolutely visceral and very nearly ultimate, and every step along the path is brought to stunning, sad life here.

One of the most marvelous touches is provided by the character of the young woman on hand to help the TV crew; she's from Croatia and so has experienced her own share of horror and repercussion. As is true of the entire film, there is nothing manufactured nor manipulative about this graceful character (nor in the fine work of the actress who plays her: Anamaria Marinca, from 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and the more recent Storm).

In the end credits, the filmmakers thank the two real men upon whom these characters were based and who advised the writer and director during the making of the film. So, though what we see never happened, the movie provides a most believable account of what might have been.

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Posted by cphillips at May 3, 2010 12:24 PM
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