As a subgenre of torn-from-the-headlines tragedies, the cinema of Ireland’s “The Troubles” has pretty predictable motifs: period-appropriate bad haircuts, rioters chucking rubble, clandestine meetings in pub back rooms. (Anyone who thinks that such conventions can’t calcify into instant parody should see Fifty Dead Men Walking, also out this week.) There’s initially no reason to believe that Oliver Hirschbiegel’s thriller is anything but another Celtic-pathos clone, as teenagers with ’70s shag-dos carry out an anti-Catholic assassination in the first 15 minutes.
But after this preamble, the tone shifts. That young Protestant who pulled the trigger has grown into a haunted Liam Neeson; the boy who watched his brother die that night is now a severely neurotic James Nesbitt. The two are being shuttled to a TV program where they will confront each other. From that point, Five Minutes of Heaven becomes less interested in rehashing nationalistic conflicts than in the scars left by righteousness, something both Nesbitt and Neeson—an actor who reminds us here that he isn’t just a booming baritone—hammer home with every thousand-yard stare. When violence eventually rears its ugly head again, the effect is as anticlimactic as the movie’s title is misleading. Brief bliss is a red herring; there’s only a lifetime of pain left in such acts’ wakes.