DIR/WRI: Stephen Burke • PRO: Brendan J. Byrne, Jane Doolan, Simon Perry • DOP: David Grennan • ED: John O’Connor • DES: Owen Power • CAST: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Barry Ward, Martin McCann
In terms of films centred around The Troubles – with 90s Jim Sheridan movies, ’71 and Hunger being the best and The Devil’s Own starring Brad Pitt perhaps the worst – Stephen Burke’s prison drama Maze is closer to the top end, on par with something like Fifty Dead Men Walking. Set in 1983, it stars Tom Vaughan Lawlor (Love/Hate’s Nidge doing an impressive Northern Irish accent) as the real-life Larry Marley, an IRA prisoner who took part in the famous hunger strike that led to the deaths of ten men including Bobby Sands (see Hunger). Following the failure of this protest, Marley is placed into the newly built Maze prison – the most seemingly secure jail in Europe at the time. The republican devises a plan to break out. However, in order to do so, he must convince his IRA superior and fellow inmate Oscar (Martin McCann – ‘71, The Survivalist) that his plan is fool-proof, survive trapped with various jailed loyalists and win the trust of world-weary prison guard Gordon Close (Barry Ward – The Fall, Jimmy’s Hall).
What Maze does impressively is blend historical context with genre filmmaking, managing to feel both important and exciting. In the same way as ’71 could be interpreted equally as a story about a Brit soldier trapped behind enemy lines and a Warriors-like tale of survival in a city where everyone wants to kill you, Maze is, at its heart, a prison movie. It hits all the beats of the sub-genre that people enjoy – the subtle scoping out of the prison perimeter, the exposing of the one weakness that can allow escape, the various precise steps necessary to facilitate a break-out.
It blends the fundamentals of the prison sub-genre with true-life stories of people affected by The Troubles. For instance, instead of the sadistic prison warden typically seen in movies all the way from Jules Dassin’s Brute Force to Shawshank Redemption, the Gordon Close character in Maze comes to symbolise that both Loyalists and Republicans were victims of The Northern Irish conflict. Both Larry and Gordon are prisoners. The two are trapped, Larry by literal prison bars and Gordon from the bars on the security system he has to install in his house following an attempted hit on his family. Both spend their days in jail and have moments where they wonder what the point of all the violence is. Larry worries if his friends’ deaths in the hunger strike were for nothing and Gordon ponders if his dedication to the Crown is worth sacrificing his family (who’ve left him after he refused to quit following the assassination attempt).
Another nice blend of the historical and the pulpy is the tentative relationship that develops between Larry and Gordon. The latter is the true flaw that the IRA member needs to exploit to escape. Larry identifies in Gordon the sadness that will cause him to let his guard down and capitalises on it, enduring hostility from the warden until he eventually warms to him. Yet, despite their relationship essentially being a ruse, there are moments where they do share a real bond such as when the two discuss their wives (Larry’s played briefly but memorably by Catastrophe’s Eileen Walsh).
The build up to the eventual escape attempt is tense. The grim, brown colour pallette functions as both an evocation of Belfast at the time and a verisimilitude booster. The editing by Handsome Devil’s John O’Connor is tight. Yet, what keeps the movie from true greatness is some two-dimensional characters (the Loyalist prisoners are dispatched from the narrative too easily for me). The prison scenes seem a little tame particularly when comparing them to Hunger which took place almost at the same time. Plus, although Maze doesn’t take sides (adopting an appropriate war is hell attitude to The Troubles), it doesn’t communicate to the viewer anything anybody slightly versed in the conflict wouldn’t already know. Still, for fans of prison dramas or well-acted historical thrillers, Burke’s film is a very solid entry in both camps.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Maze is released 22nd September 2017