Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The echoes of Irish violence

Powerful work from Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt.

If it weren't so contrived Five Minutes of Heaven -- another look at conflict in Ireland -- might have been a powerhouse of a movie. Director Oliver Hirschbiegel obtains strong performances from Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, but can't keep the movie's seams from showing.

In pitting a Protestant murderer against his victim's surviving Catholic brother, the movie all-too-obviously raises issues about the price of violence. Instead of being a drama of surprising revelation, Five Minutes of Heaven feels as if it had been written by someone working from a well-prepared checklist.

The movie alternates between the murder -- which took place in 1975 -- and subsequent efforts by a TV producer to bring the two antagonists together for a moment of truth and reconciliation. The murder committed by teen-ager Alistair Little, played as an adult by Neeson, was witnessed by the victim's 11-year-old brother, Joe. The kid happened to be kicking a soccer ball around the street at the time.

The adult Little (Neeson) blames himself for being a cocky teen-ager who craved a bit of celebrity. He's gone beyond guilt and shame into deep resignation. He long ago abandoned the idea that he might be forgiven.

Still suffering from the trauma of the shooting and from the rebuke of a mother who blamed him for not stopping his brother's murder, Joe (Nesbitt) has become a wreck of a man. He chain smokes and seems unable to corral the torrents of nervous energy that often leave him talking to himself. He believes he can relieve his guilt and anxiety only by exacting revenge on Little.

The movie also introduces a variety of flashbacks that feature well-chosen young actors playing Little and Joe as youngsters. These flashbacks take us through the fateful day on which Joe's brother was shot while sitting in his living room watching TV.

Playwright Guy Hibbert reportedly wrote the screenplay after meeting with two men who lived through a similar story. Despite being grounded in reality, the movie never feels entirely credible, perhaps because it strains to deliver its message, namely that acts of violence reverberate long after the bullets stop flying. It's a truth that didn't need to be uttered. The point, apparent from the outset, can be seen in Little's fatigued expression and in Joe's tormented gaze.

Five Minutes of Heaven opens in Denver on Nov. 23rd..

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