Film Review: Maze brings historic IRA prison-break to the big screen

Writer director Stephen Burke highlights the human drama behind an historic IRA jailbreak in Maze, which stars Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as the conflicted architect of the escape

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (second left) as Maze escape mastermind Larry Marley
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (second left) as Maze escape mastermind Larry Marley

MAZE (15, 93mins) Drama/Thriller. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Barry Ward, Martin McCann, Cillian O’Sullivan, Patrick Buchanan, Lalor Roddy, Niamh McGrady, Elva Trill, Eileen Walsh. Director: Stephen Burke

BASED on the infamous 1983 IRA jailbreak, Maze sets itself the unenviable task of serving historical fact while also existing as a piece of entertainment to be enjoyed by an audience previously oblivious to its 'based on real events' story.

Sensibly, writer/director Stephen Burke doesn't get bogged down in the politics of the day and instead gets busy crafting a gripping, well-executed low budget prison movie which keeps its human drama to the fore without sacrificing tension or excitement.

Maze director Stephen Burke on bringing IRA jailbreak to the big screenOpens in new window ]

His second feature film opens with vintage TV news footage of the Maze/Long Kesh and radio news clips combine with simple explanatory on-screen text set to set the post-hunger strikes scene, with 10 IRA 'blanket men' having died while demanding 'political status' from a British government sticking to its line that "there is no such thing as political murder".

We're then introduced the bedraggled looking Larry Marley (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) – one of the real life characters in Maze's skilful blend of fact and fictional embellishment – fresh from the hunger strike and clearly psychologically traumatised by the experience.

"Sometimes I feel like a cheat... being alive when they're not," he tells his wife when she comes to visit, shortly after he's been branded a 'traitor' for abandoning the protest as per the wishes of the republican leadership.

However, Marley is a man with a plan. With republican morale at an all-time low, a mass escape attempt from the most secure prison in Europe could be just the thing to turn things around.

"Everybody thinks we're finished – a bigger problem is that we do too," he tells his friend and IRA OC, Oscar (Martin McCann). "We need to prove that we still have a pulse."

West Belfast actor Martin McCann as IRA 'OC' Oscar in Maze
West Belfast actor Martin McCann as IRA 'OC' Oscar in Maze

Oscar, a fictional character who is very much the Doubting Thomas of the piece ("Meet my raincloud", quips Marley to another inmate), is not so sure.

Part of Marley's plan requires mapping out the prison, but to do that, he has to find accomplices and reasons for them to be allowed to move around.

Possible solutions, such as volunteering for 'skivvying' – cleaning and laundry jobs – are verboten for any self-respecting republican prisoner – not to mention getting on friendly terms with certain warders in order to earn their trust.

Thus, Marley risks alienating his fellow volunteers, in addition to the prospect of spending his life on the run if the plan gets approval from the IRA leadership – and if it actually succeeds.

There's also the inconvenient matter of the loyalist inmates – somewhat comically represented on screen, it must be said – who will surely side with the prison staff during any republican escape attempt.

The central relationship at the heart of Maze is the prickly rapport which develops between Marley and Gordon Close (Barry Ward), a warder already critical of the prison authorities' relaxation of the rules with regard to republican inmates.

"Since when do we allow them to wear civvies?" he complains.

Despite being able to go home at the end of each shift, guards at the Maze were 'legitimate targets' for the IRA: Close and his family also sleep behind iron bars at night, thanks to the security cage in their hallway – a historically accurate visual metaphor for those on both sides were trapped by the life they'd chosen.

Close makes it clear he's not keen on allowing republicans to be treated like 'normal' prisoners, but gradually he and Marley begin to grow comfortable enough at close quarters to share details about their home lives and calmly bicker over their respective roles in the Troubles.

"Well, I'd be at home with my wife and family if wasn't for the likes of you bastards," offers Marley after his jailer criticises "IRA bastards" for putting strain on his home life.

Marley is an interesting character: despite his determination to spearhead an unprecedented IRA show of strength, he's also worried that his son Danny is on the verge of "joining the family business".

"I need to be out there, dealing with this," he frets, knowing he can never go home if the plan succeeds.

Marley also insists that the escape needs to be "injury free" lest it generate negative publicity. While this is logical enough, superficially, you can't help but wonder if some dramatic license has been taken here for the sake of currying favour with audiences.

Maze effectively ramps up the tension as the republican plot gradually comes together and Marley is forced to make some hard choices.

When it comes, the violence as depicted is rather less brutal than what actually occurred on September 25 1983, when 38 IRA men staged the biggest jailbreak in British and Irish history.

However, on the whole Stephen Burke and a talented cast have delivered a solid prison flick with a political edge, which successfully mines both sides of this remarkable Troubles-era story for dramatic effect.

RATING: 7/10