3* - Stephen Burke’s film recreates a daring IRA prison breakout
It fascinates me that so few good films have been made about the Troubles. The guns fell silent 20 odd years ago, but for some reason, no one has so far managed to transform that depressingly petty sectarian conflict into a unified and compelling drama. It’s not for want of decent story-lines: I would personally hate to watch a film about the Shankill Butchers, but it might make a first-class horror movie. And the assassination of poor old Lord Mountbatten has the makings of a gripping thriller.
British film-makers, for obvious reasons, have tended to to shy away from the subject, and Irish ones have never had the money to tackle anything on a large scale. And so, while there’ve been strong efforts now and then, like Steve McQueen’s Hunger or the gritty British thriller ’71, most of the movies made about the Troubles have been ordinary to poor. Maze does not buck the trend.
Written and directed by Stephen Burke, it’s based on the mass breakout from H Block 7 in September of 1983. At the time, HM Prison Maze was considered the most impregnable in Europe, a fearsome place surrounded by 15ft-high fences and comprised of a labyrinth of H-shaped buildings encased in even higher concrete walls. Set in the Co Down countryside, its layout was designed to disorientate prisoners and make it difficult for them to plot and plan escapes, something the IRA has proved pretty good at in the past.
Maze tells the story of how they managed to crack this supposedly impregnable fortress and spring 38 Republican prisoners. Though most were later recaptured, it was a major publicity coup for the IRA, whose campaign was subsequently revitalised.
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor stars as Larry Marley, a veteran of the Sands hunger strikes. At the start of the film we watch him end his fast, cut his filthy hair and take a shower. And while some might consider Larry a hero, he gets a frosty reception when he’s moved to a new wing. The Loyalists in the adjoining cells despise and mock him as he passes, and his fellow Republicans resent him for having survived while others died. They’re even less impressed when he volunteers to clean the prison floors, but Larry has a plan.
He spends months carefully winning the trust of prison guard Gordon Close (Barry Ward). Like most of the other guards, Gordon loathes the IRA, who considered prison officers fair game and killed plenty of them. He himself has recently survived an attempt on his life, and his wife and daughter have fled to England, leaving Gordon alone and emotionally vulnerable. All of this Larry has noticed.
Throw any two half-decent human beings together for long enough and they’ll start to get along.
Larry is endlessly patient, proceeds by increment and never overplays his hand, making tactful cups of tea and hovering respectfully. Eventually, the men start to talk casually and Gordon lowers his guard.
Larry is using him, of course, and the information Gordon unwittingly reveals will be essential to the daring escape attempt. But Marley faces opposition among his comrades, most particularly his commanding officer, Oscar (Martin McCann), who thinks Larry’s plan is too risky, and will make fools of them all if it goes wrong. But at the last minute, Oscar gives the go-ahead.
Stephen Burke’s story is competently told and the escape itself is nicely handled as the men overpower their guards using guns smuggled into the prison in pieces, and leave the compound in the back of a food lorry.
But the drama plods at times and a film set almost entirely in a gloomy prison might have benefited from a more imaginative visual approach. Vaughan-Lawlor’s rarely less than excellent, and gives Larry a soulful, brooding intensity.
But Mr Burke’s screenplay doesn’t really flesh him out and a scratchy back story involving an exasperated wife and radicalised son does not satisfy one’s curiosity.
And pity the poor foreigner coming to the story of the Troubles for the first time, because Maze will leave them none the wiser.