Sundance 2009 Review: Five Minutes of Heaven
Although the number of dispatches I was able to pop off during my stay in Park City this year dwindled considerably from last year’s dossier (10 to 2: ouch!), I was at least able to squeeze in a few more hours of sleep and actually tuck away a few square meals. The logy feel at Sundance this year, I decided after ruminating about it over my ten-day stay and checking in with a few other festival veterans, had as much to do with the excitement over President Obama’s inauguration ceremony as it did the joy-killing economic climate. In fact, the coincidence between these two tectonic shifts in American life could not have been better illustrated than on Main Street last Tuesday morning. JumboTron screens carried Obama’s message of hope and renewal to a bulbous clutch of cheering onlookers, perhaps two hundred in number, some of whom wiped teary eyes or burst into spontaneous applause at the rosier, rapturous turns of phrase embedded within the former senator’s impressive Ciceronian oratory. I’d have lingered longer, and listened more attentively, had I a few minutes to spare. Instead, I squeezed through the crowd, pinned in mass solidarity to their sidewalk positions, on my way to the Stanfield Art Gallery, where I was to interview Irish actors Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt about Five Minutes of Heaven, a tale of truth and reconciliation in the wake of political conflict, appropriately enough, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall, Das Experiment), who I was also expecting to chat with at the same location. Once Obama’s speech ended, and the screens cleared to make way for some lesser event scheduled for the indie-music showcase, so did the high-spirited throng. When I emerged from my interviews a half hour later, Main Street was eerily unpopulated again, just as it had been all week long. The ski lifts looked especially forlorn, mechanically circling the too-warm slopes in one useless loop after another.
Speaking of meaningless cycles, Hirschbiegel’s film deals with a nasty one: the legacy of violence that has engulfed Northern Ireland for generations. Uneven but affecting at its extremities, Five Minutes of Heaven is a very personal film, not so much for Hirschbiegel, but for the writer, Guy Hibbert, who devoted two years of research to the real-life story of two men, a victim and a perpetrator on opposite sides of the political divide, who he interviewed extensively in preparing the final script, which is largely fiction. Liam Neeson plays Alistair Little, a former convict turned anti-violence counselor who, 33 years earlier, assassinates a Belfast local in front of his youngest sibling, Joe Griffin (Nesbitt), for no apparent reason than to beef up his gutsy, streetwise reputation among Protestant loyalists. (The film opens in 1975, with young actors playing Joe and a teenage Alistair, tracks the events leading up to the crime, then shifts into the present.) In the spirit of reconciliation, a BBC producer has asked the two men to meet for the cameras, hoping the emotional confrontation will lead to truth and forgiveness. Both men agree to the reality-TV-like confab, although for entirely different reasons: Alistair seeks to face his guilt head-on, and perhaps in some way offer closure to the man whose life he has scarred since childhood. Joe, for his part, wants revenge, and intends on having it, damn the consequences.
Five Minutes of Heaven, which screened in the World Dramatic Competition, is scrupulously lean and minimal, feeling at times like a filmed version of a stage production. Hibbert’s script, while intelligent and economical, doesn’t explicate Ulster politics or delve deeply into the history of the Troubles; instead, it focuses on the aftermath of a single act and the psychology of blame and forgiveness, sin and redemption that bring Alistair and Joe into each other’s orbit, leaving in suspenseful tension the question of how that conflict will be resolved. Neeson and Nesbitt are both dedicated performers, and each brings gravitas to his respective role—a somber thoughtfulness for the former, and an itchy, irritable, pained restlessness for the latter. The narrative arc of the film is the drama of their two encounters, the first life-defining and weirdly intimate, the second a tumultuous clash, yet one wishes for more impactful exchanges along the way, like the brief one between Nesbitt and Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), an East European production assistant who, in an unguarded moment, he divulges his plan to. Obviously, this was a labor of love for everyone involved, but it hardly sustains the viewer’s interest in the way that other films about the Irish conflict—Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday, Steve McQueen’s Hunger—have, with an equally stripped-down aesthetic and a decidedly solemn tone. Heaven beckons, on some level, but never quite musters the drive to hook us on its twin poles of haunted human casualty.