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Movie Review

Five Minutes of Heaven

Penitence meets vengeance

Five Minutes of Heaven James Nesbitt (left) plays a Catholic confronting his brother's Protestant killer (Liam Neeson). (Steffan Hill/IFC Films)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 25, 2009

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‘Five Minutes of Heaven’’ reduces Northern Ireland’s troubles to a gimmick, but it’s an interesting gimmick, and the two men hoisted on its petard work at vivid cross-purposes. If nothing else, the film’s worth seeing as a demonstration of opposing acting techniques.

In this corner, we have Liam Neeson as Alistair Little, a real-life Irish Protestant who joined the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Forces as a teenager and has since renounced his violent ways. On the other side of the ring is James Nesbitt (“Bloody Sunday’’) as Joe Griffen, the grown brother of the Catholic man Little murdered back in 1975. The two are being brought together on a TV show whose shallow, chattery producer wants to know if “truth and reconciliation’’ are possible. Not bloody likely. “I’m going for revenge,’’ snarls Joe.

The first half-hour of “Five Minutes of Heaven’’ reenacts the murder amid the apocalyptic landscape of ’70s Ulster, and it’s easily the strongest part of the movie. (Mark Davison, the actor playing the young Alistair Little, is especially good.) We viscerally feel the hatred of one group for another and see how it warps an adolescent soul into a fanatical killing machine.

Young Joe (Kevin O’Neill) stood powerlessly by as his brother was shot to death, and the shame has poisoned his life. Nesbitt, never invested in subtlety to begin with, practically crawls out of his skin as the adult Joe, chain-smoking in the green room and alternately berating and venting to Vika (Anamaria Marinca, of “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’’), the TV show’s production assistant. What he has lived with the past 33 years is nothing compared with what he’s contemplating doing to Alistair when they meet.

Neeson, in stark contrast, plays the grown Little with what appears to be eerie serenity. Then you look closer and see he’s just immobilized by guilt. The killer has served his time and now gives speeches aimed at defusing sectarian violence in other parts of the world; he wants to talk down the young man he once was. Joe looks at his success and is driven into further fits.

The two stars, one frenetic, the other still, are equally moving, but the film frustratingly puts off their confrontation again and again. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert dances around the issues he raises - forgiveness the biggest of all - and by the time he does come to grips with them, the drama has turned both melodramatically pat and hard to swallow. The movie keeps threatening to tumble right out the window and finally it does so.

Directed by German filmmaker Oliver Hirschbiegel (“Downfall’’), “Five Minutes of Heaven’’ ultimately wears its wishful agony on its sleeve. It’s a movie “inspired by’’ two real men who’ve never met and it’s moved to schematic pity by the thought of what might happen if they did.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN Directed by: Oliver Hirschbiegel

Written by: Guy Hibbert

Starring: Liam Neeson, James Nesbitt, Anamaria Marinca

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 90 minutes

Unrated (as R: graphic violence, language, desperate chain-smoking)

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