Maze – Film Review by Pat Viale
Director: Stephen Burke
Writer: Stephen Burke
Stars: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Barry Ward, Martin McCann
Based on actual events, director Stephen Burke’s film tells the story of the infamous 1983 prison breakout of 38 IRA prisoners from the Maze prison in Co. Antrim, which was to become the biggest prison escape in Europe since World War II. Told from the point of view of Larry Marley (a superb Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) who is said to have masterminded the escape plan, it shows how, in spite of the repeated setbacks, he never lost hope and with intricate planning and manipulation, succeeded in organising the historic escape.
Burke’s film begins in 1983. Marley has made the decision to come off the Dirty Protest (when prisoners refused to leave their cells or wear prison uniforms, smearing the cell walls with excrement and covering themselves only in blankets) in the wake of the end of Long Kesh Hunger Strike during which 10 prisoners died. He is moved to a cell in H-block where Catholic and Protestant prisoners are kept in close proximity with frequent outbreaks of violence between the two groups.
Here he is reunited with his IRA battalion chief, Oscar (Martin McCann). With morale at an all time low following the hunger strike deaths, the two men strive to find a way to boost the spirit of their comrades, “to prove to the world that we still have a pulse”. However, when Marley comes up with a plan for a prison break he is told that what he suggests is impossible. The security system of the aptly named Maze prison seem impregnable. Convinced that there must be a flaw, he slowly sets about drawing a map of the Maze complex, making contacts and working to win the trust of a prison warder, Gordon Close. In the tense story that follows, an unlikely relationship develops between the two men.
Burke perfectly captures the hothouse world of the prisoners which can explode into violence at any moment with confrontations between the different factions and punishment beatings by the warders. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is flawless in his portrayal of a man who, having sacrificed freedom and family life for over ten years, now longs only for the chance to live a normal life. In his conversations with Close (Barry Ward) we can see how much the two men have in common – the warder as much a prisoner of the life he is forced to lead as the men he guards. Martin McCann captures the cold determination of the IRA commander and Aaron Monaghan as the hot-headed fellow prisoner suspicious of Marley’s plans is totally convincing in the role.
Maze is a perfectly judged film. While dealing with a politically charged subject, it does not take sides or glorify violence in any way. Instead it concentrates on individuals, trapped on opposing sides of a struggle over which they have little control, who long for the same thing, a future where they can live in peace and fulfilment. It is skilfully paced with no weak performances and though the denouement is known from the start, it is the pitch-perfect interplay of Marley and Close that is the focus of the film and which always holds out interest. The sole drawback is the difficulty at times in deciphering the strong Northern Irish accents, particularly in the case of the soft-spoken McCann, when subtitles would have been an advantage.