19 April 2009

FIVE MINUTES OF HEAVEN (Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel, UK, 2009)

James Nesbitt as Joe Griffin and Liam Nesson as Alistair Little

Having been effectively kicked off his first Hollywood film, German film maker Oliver Hirschbiegel, makes an impressive return to form with this Northern Ireland based drama 'Five Minutes of Heaven'. Achieving international success with ‘Downfall’ and ‘The Experiment’, Hirschbiegel’s credentials as an emerging world cinema talent quickly attracted the attention or should I say scorn of Hollywood. Hirschbiegel was hired to direct a summer science fiction film, ‘The Invasion’; a contemporary updating of Jack Finney’s allegorical novel which had famously been used as a basis for Don Siegel’s 1954 science fiction classic, ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. With a hefty $65 million budget and A list cast including Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, producer Joel Silver was unimpressed by Hirschbiegel’s finished film. Having removed him from the project, they brought in 'V for Vendetta' director, James McTiegue to complete extensive re shoots which cost up to $10 million. Though Hirschbiegel retained final credit as sole director of the film and having not disowned the film publicly, he may seriously reconsider working with a major Hollywood studio again. A similarly negative and compromised creative experience also marred the Hollywood debut of another flamboyant European visual stylist, Jean Pierre Jenuet, who after the debacle of ‘Alien Resurrection’ bounced back critically with ‘Amelie’, the biggest film of his career to date.

By returning to the familiar territory of social conflict, Hirschbiegel tackles the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ by juxtaposing the crimes of the past with today’s pursuit for truth and reconciliation. Commissioned by BBC4, this a co-production of a number of small production outfits including the BBC and though it was first shown to critical acclaim at the Sundance film festival, it had its UK premiere on BBC2 in the Easter scheduling. The film has been picked up by Pathe and will receive an international release. ‘Bloody Sunday’, directed by Paul Greengrass and also starring James Nesbitt, was another Northern Ireland based TV drama that attracted acclaim at various film festivals and was eventually given a limited international release.

I’m not sure if ‘Five Minutes of Heaven’ has the cinematic scope of a film like ‘Bloody Sunday’ but the presence of an auteur like Hirschbiegel and the current box office pulling power of Liam Nesson (‘Taken’ has been a sleeper hit internationally) seems to make perfect commercial sense for Pathe. When he wants to, Nesson can be a very powerful actor and his performance as the real life guilt ridden Alistair Little, a member of the protestant UDF (Ulster Volunteer Force) who at the age of 17 murdered James Griffin (Catholic) in retaliation for the murder of his father by the IRA is a notable reminder of his versatility. Nesson is rightfully compared to Robert Mitchum in that his on screen presence is largely achieved through a stoic, physical dominance in which his body argues for a traditional male identity, one based on intimidation and charisma. However, the same can't be said of Nesbitt's miscasting in the role of Joe Griffin who witnesses the cold blooded brother of his brother and is asked by a TV company to participate in a recording of a truth and reconciliation meeting between him and Little.

Most films made about the Northern Ireland conflict tend to focus on historical events and usually offer an ideological debate from the past but Guy Hibert, the writer behind Omagh, partially succeeds in offering a different political slant by attempting to position the conflict between perpetrator and victim in a contemporary post Blair context. The concern for realism is quite typical of the BBC's commitment to quality television drama and its liberal agenda comes through strongly in the film's attempt to advocate a message of understanding and tolerance for the crimes of a past mired in sectarian conflict and generational hatred. What this film proves is that Hollywood rarely allow film makers who want to make films on their own terms to flourish and it is safe to say that Hirschbiegel works better when left alone.

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