Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Hidden Gems of Netflix: Five Minutes of Heaven

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Liam Neeson has morphed somewhat of late, from an actor who specialized in serious, Oscar-winning films like Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (and was also Spielberg’s first pick at some point for the title role now occupied by Daniel Day-Lewis in the somber, reverent “Lincoln”) to an actor who is most likely to be seen in movies like “Taken” and “The A-Team”—both movies that work well in their own way, but are of a completely different caliber and intent than much of his previous work. In this most recent portion of his career, he has successfully reinvented himself as a genuine take-no-prisoners action star; and, I might add, a much more entertaining and convincing one than the present-day versions of eighties’ icons Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. But despite this transformation, Neeson still gamely lent his star-power, talent, and box-office-draw name to a small European release like “Five Minutes of Heaven”(Path√©, BBC Fims), a film that, although it received some attention at Sundance in 2009, made a comparatively tiny amount of money in the US and slipped by virtually undetected.

Neeson stars here as the Irish-Protestant Alistair Little, who, at the age of 17, killed a Catholic boy named Jim Griffin in his Ulster home. Little eventually served time in jail and is now rehabilitated and released. The movie opens with Neeson narrating in an even, dignified, and straightforward way the specific situation of the 1975 murder and the general atmosphere of the Troubles. “For me to talk about the man I have become,” he says, “you need to know about the man I was.” His narration, and the slightly grainy, washed out footage that accompanies it, examines some of the group-think causes of terrorism. The man he was is played by Mark Ryder, who looks remarkably like a younger Neeson, from the tall, purposeful frame to the long, narrow nose. His eyes, however, are bright and clear, while the present day Alistair played by Neeson has a face weighed down by years of regret and melancholy resignation. Alistair now makes a living speaking about reconciliation, and he is scheduled to meet Joe Griffin, the younger brother of the man he killed. Neeson expertly conveys a blend of conflicting emotions: Alistair does want the meeting to take place, perhaps for his own closure, but is also visibly nervous, and understands and generously insists that the confrontation, which a TV crew will be filming live, must be completely on Joe’s terms. His crime weighs on him, and he wants more than anything to atone, but he also has made a career out of that attitude, a complication deftly shown when he repeats his opening narration lines to the TV cameras; the words begin to sound like something that has become routine for him. Our awareness of this possibility feeds into our comprehension of and sympathy with Joe's bitterness.

Playing Joe Griffin is another great Irish actor, James Nesbitt. His name is not nearly as well known as Neeson’s internationally (although you can currently see him as the comic and roguish dwarf Bofur in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”), but his performance is just as important to the success of “Five Minutes in Heaven,” if not more so. Joe is a bitter, angry man. He saw Alistair kill his brother over thirty years ago, and could do nothing, and his mother has blamed him ever since. He stews under a cloud of resentment and simmering ire, barely concealing his own deep sense of guilt underneath. The film first introduces him sitting in the back of a long black luxury car as he is driven to the meeting; it is a long tense scene as Joe keeps flashing back to the fatal event and his mother’s treatment of him afterward, and wavers on whether he will actually go through with the confrontation or not. He is completely agitated and distracted, and the scene is almost painful in its raw emotionality. And this introduction is not even Joe’s most emotional moment; rather the script pushes him further and further into the dark corners of his wounded mind, where his desperate lashing out seems equally divided between Alistair and himself. Joe runs the gamut of emotions in this film, and every one of them is finely stamped on Nesbitt’s haggard and vulnerable face. He also gives Joe an irrepressible nervous energy that shows itself in multitudinous small, quick, intense movements. His mental unease communicates itself bodily and creates a vivid portrait of a torn and broken man. The script by Guy Hibbert also gives Nesbitt several powerful monologues to work with, which he devours with energy, while always making the words sound like they are coming straight from the mess of Joe Griffin’s inner struggles.

I’ve largely dedicated this review to the two main actors because the film does the same thing. It hands over its simple plot to these two actors and characters and reveals itself as a great two-handed acting showcase. Neeson and Nesbit complement each other’s styles as well: where Neeson is all dignified containment, Nesbit is practically boiling over. But director Oliver Hirschbiegel (famous for his German film on Hitler’s last days, “Downfall”) also deserves much credit for his restrained but purposeful, and at times starkly beautiful direction. There are three splendid shots in particular that stand out:  The first comes about halfway through the film, when Joe is finally descending the stairs at the country retreat to confront Alistair, caught on the documentary team’s TV cameras. Hirschbiegel keeps his own camera directly in front of Joe, putting the character’s discomfort at the unnaturally staged quality of the event front and center, as Hirschbiegel's cinematographer (Ruairi O'Brien) takes the place of the fictional film crew. The second two come right near the end of the movie (mild SPOILERS ahead), when Joe and Alistair meet once again: first Alistair enters the ground floor of an abandon building, and the camera pulls back to show Joe waiting on a balcony above him, looking down unseen with an intense and frightening expression; then Alistair climbs the stairs and enters a room on the second floor, and the camera again reveals Joe, again where Alistair cannot see him, this time behind the open door. These shots suggest the moral and power imbalance between these two men. What is between them will forever keep them on different levels, at the same time enslaving both of them to the past, unless in their increasingly desperate hunt for closure and meaning they can somehow get past each other and the mental and emotional space they take up in each other’s lives.

Though at times slow and too dependent on long, play-like talky scenes, this film is a thoughtful drama about terrorism, revenge, and the possibility of forgiveness, elevated by riveting performances from Nesbitt and Neeson.

"Five Minutes of Heaven" (R) **** (Available on Netflix Instant)

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