Saturday, May 16, 2009

Review: 5 Minutes in Heaven

5 Minutes in Heaven (2009, Oliver Hirschbiegel)

I tend to focus a lot on the directors when I review a film, but this is one instance when the focus could be placed far more on the writer, in this case Guy Hibbert. Hibbert, inspired by the the real life stories of two men personally involved in the violent conflict that plagued Northern Ireland in the 1970s, chose to write a story that mixed both fact and fiction, intentionally (I listened to a recent interview with the writer on an arts program on the BBC, which is basically how I came to discover the film in the first place).

Alistair Little, a young newcomer to the UVF (Northern Ireland's Protestant and illegal armed force) is asked to perform his first kill. Equipped with a pistol and accompanied by some of his friends, they drive one night to the home of their target. The kill is performed mercilessly and quickly, but Alistair realizes that someone was watching: the victim's little brother, Joe Griffen. Alistair and his co-horts flee the premises, leaving Joe Griffen, only a young boy, standing there in shock. All of that is true. The twist occurs years later when, by some bizarre and possibly cruel twist of fate, both Alistair (now played by Liam Neeson) and Joe (James Nesbit) and invited to meet face to face on a television show that appears to specialize in awkward meetings and interviews like this. Alistair is now some sort of councillor for people trying to cope with their past mistakes such as violent crimes and Joe Griffen is basically a nervous wreck. Flashbacks show how his mother, upon learning that Joe was present at the scene of the crime, continuously scolded him for having not intervened. On the way to the location of the shoot (courtesy of a personal driver provided by the tv show), Joe is lost in his thoughts and begins to display some obvious nervous ticks. Alistair (also privileged with a personal lift) appears to be perhaps less nervous on the surface by not displaying any evident twitches, but he is no less worried about what the encounter may have in store for the both of them. Both arrive at a marvelous estate where the show will be taped and are kept in seperate rooms until the beginning of the shoot. What will happen?

Running at barely 90 minutes, 5 Minutes in Heaven is a curious little film. It explores the anxiety of two people whose fates have come crashing together in the most strange and uncomfortable of circumstances. The events that has their lives intertwined is one of pain and sorrow. Alistair performed the killing to earn recognition, to become part of an exclusive group. Today, he is a changed man who of course deeply regrets what he has done. But, as the movies like to remind us so often, there is no escaping one's past, and Alistair's past has returned to haunt him. Undaunted by still very, very cautious, he has accepted the invitation. In the case Joe, we have a man scarred in a completely different way. He has been victimized in two ways. First, by witnessing the gunning down of his older brother, and secondly, by the emotional and psychological repercussions such an event has had on him, not simply by the horrific night itself, but by the punishing attitude received at the hands of his mother in the years that followed. He has come to the event with, naturally, a completely different mindset, but also a hidden agenda...

The two lead performers, in this case Liam Neeson and James Nesbit, offer two greatly disparate style, both of which are effective in their own way. Notwithstanding the strange and possibly silly premise of the setting, one can accept these two characters, their behaviors and attitudes towards one another and the television show. It's quite interesting to see these two people prepare themselves mentally and emotionally in the hours and minutes leading up to the shoot. Neeson's Alistair offers a very calm demeanour, but with clear undertones of deep, sorrowful regret. Nesbit's Joe is a man bent on finally unleashing all the anger and mourning he has suffered throughout most of his life. The little ticks he shows and his reactions to others around him are brilliant and perfectly exude what a man in his position must be going through. This is a television show after all, the people there are working to earn a living (and high ratings possibly). They keep preparing him with explanations on how the show will proceed and makeup, whereas Joe himself is simply consumed by this unrelenting ferociousness. He tries to respond politely to their queries and comments, but it is clear that his more basic, instinctive emotions are getting the better of him. It makes for a host of awkward and intense moments that help drive this portion of the film. It should be added that with Joe being the more ecstatic of the two main characters, a bit more screen time is awarded to him than to Alistair. Anamaria Marinca, who garnered a small amount of fame last year (especially over on the Filmspotting message boards) for her role in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, even has a small role as one of the aids on the tv show.

This section of the film (the first being the extended prologue when both men were young and the third being what happens after the attempt to bring them together on the show) has some odd moments. Not 'odd' maybe, but confusing in that I was at times unsure as to what the film was driving at. Sometimes it was an intimate look into the emotional state of this Joe character, who clearly is losing control of himself, and there were other scenes which seemed, to me at least, as if the film were poking fun or making a statement about how the media treats matters like this. The behaviour of the producer especially, the way he talks to Joe as they ready him and a few other details had me wondering if the film was trying to kill two birds with one stone (an indie drama and a social commentary film). I wasn't entirely sold on the moments that appeared to hint at the commentary, but thankfully they were far and few between in the grander scheme of things.

I won't give any more away, but the film does not end with the television show. A new meeting is set up Alistair himself in the months afterwards, which leads up to the film's curious and strangely fun conclusion. I really don't want to give it away, but suffice to say that while I thought the climax was a bit at odds with everything that came before, I didn't mind it that much.

5 Minutes From Heaven
is an interesting look into how a violent past can affect those involved for years to come in more ways than one. Yes, the film deals with people involved in some way or another with 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland, but the same principles could be used for people around the globe who have had to suffer from the barbaric acts committed by others. Anger, revenge, remorse and forgiveness are universal and can therefor touch us all. While there may have been a few brief moments when I thought the film's tone was a tad off, it is still strong effort by writer Guy Hibbert and director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who has a knack for choosing fascinating projects (Downfall, Das Experiment

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