After the epic “Downfall,” Oliver Hirschbiegel’s second English-language feature (following misbegotten “The Invasion) reps an about-face: It’s an intimate, essentially two-man chamber drama, although again dealing with war-torn history. Inspired by real-life figures, “Five Minutes of Heaven” finds a perpetrator and victim of 1970s Northern Ireland violence meeting decades after the crime that essentially ruined both their lives. Powerhouse performances by Liam Neeson and James Nesbit make this an intense, ultimately moving tale that should earn the reviews needed to lure niche non-U.K. auds past the depressing theme.
At age 17 in 1975, Alistair (Mark Davison) is already a veteran on the side of underground pro-England, Protestant guerrillas in hometown Lurgen. As a badge of honor, he’s asked for a “first kill” assignment, and is told to assassinate a young Catholic local who was warned to leave the area but hasn’t. Alistair accomplishes his grim task, but the shooting is observed by the victim’s previously unnoticed younger brother Joe (Kevin O’Neill). He makes a split-second decision to spare this child witness, then flees.
Thirty-three years later, two men are being separately chauffeured to an assignation both have committed to, yet dread. Alistair (Neeson) repented his misguided fanaticism during 12 years in prison, emerging a famous, globetrotting expert on individual conflict resolution and indoctrination into violent groups.
Joe (James Nesbit) still lives in Lurgen, with a wife and two small offspring. But his original family crumbled after the eldest brother’s death; his mother went to her grave irrationally blaming him for not somehow stopping the murder. Stuck in factory labor, he bitterly resents Alistair’s supposedly charmed life.
A television program has arranged for the two men to meet at last, with the idea that some kind of reconciliation (or at least high drama) might occur. But an extremely agitated Joe confesses to production assistant Vika (Anamaria Marinca) — a sincere person amid the smarmy crew — that he’s always wanted to wreak vengeance on Alistair. She doesn’t know how seriously to take his rant, but indeed, he’s packing a knife.
In any case, the show does not go as planned.
Last of three distinct acts has the two men confronting one another under very different circumstances. A two-part epilogue uses rigorous restraint to fine effect, like Hirschbiegel’s handling throughout, resisting teary histrionics.
Neeson is an actor with a gift for gravitas, and the tight composure that masks Alistair’s agonizing guilt allows Nesbit to give a contrastingly manic, exposed-nerve perf that might otherwise seem excessive.
Asking whether reconciliation in some circumstances is ever really possible, the pic provides no easy answers but does make a potent case for at least addressing old wounds. Guy Hibbert’s excellent screenplay evolved over three years of consultations with the real Alistair Little and Joe Griffin, making sure every detail reflected their notions of what might be said or done if they ever met — which won’t likely happen: Griffin says he’d still feel drawn to kill Little on sight, a revenge he imagines would provide “five minutes of heaven.”
Feature is unfussy and compact on all levels, from crisp lensing (which in the first section apes the look of gritty ’70s pics) to sparsely used score. Tech contributions are sharp.