Director: Stephen Burke
Cast: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Martin McCann, Barry Ward
Running Time: 92 minutes
Home Media Release Date: January 22
Maze, the latest film from Stephen Burke, sees the Irish writer/director revisit the Troubles following his breakthrough short film 81. Based on the true story of the escape of 38 IRA prisoners from the notorious HMP Maze in Co. Down in 1983, the film follows Larry Marley (Vaughan-Lawlor), a veteran Republican prisoner who begins cooperating with prison officers in order to covertly survey his surroundings and plot a jailbreak.
Maze is, first and foremost, a prison break film, and its keen focus on this is somehow both its best and worst quality. Despite some plot holes opening up around the film’s climax – allowing sense as well as the prisoners to escape the Maze – the film is well-structured overall, remaining fixed on the pursuit of the plot, rather than the adjacent political tension. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor gives a graceful, intelligent performance as Larry, and the action plays out at a satisfying pace. The tone of the first two-thirds of the film is pretty low-key, allowing the tension to build and unleash entirely at the violent climax of the film, which is very effective. In these ways, Maze is extremely watchable.
On the other hand, hitting every beat as expected means that Maze feels quite generic in some ways. Structurally and narratively, it’s a fairly standard prison break story. There is an attempt to contextualise what we see on screen, by bookending the action with a quick primer on the 1981 Hunger Strike, as well as a summary of the fallout after the escape attempt. But while this exposition should be a suitable refresher for any Irish audience members who can’t track this event (from a mere 35 years ago), other narrative details could potentially be lost on an international audience. The issues around Republicans and Loyalists being locked up together in the Maze, the celebration of the 12th of July that sparks a riot, and Larry’s first appearance as a Blanketman are never considered in any great depth; and it’s a missed opportunity to put a distinctly (Northern) Irish stamp on the genre. The cast is excellent overall, Barry Ward’s acerbic warden Gordon Close in particular making for a neat dramatic match for Vaughan-Lawlor. Yet it often feels as if they are filling out fairly thin character sketches.
The space of the prison is shot perfectly to suit the theme of the film. Boxing characters into tight shots of narrow corridors and confined spaces adds to the tension that simmers from the onset. Interestingly, we see this motif spilling out of the prison and into Close’s home, with bars installed on his doors and windows following an attempt on his life. However, it rarely gets more sophisticated than this, failing even to expand on the suggested metaphor; and the ultimate visual effect is quite drab.
Overall, Maze is a tense and engaging thriller, elevated by strong lead performances from Vaughan-Lawlor and Ward. It’s just a shame it’s a little too thinly-drawn and plays it somewhat safe in its direction and storytelling. Stylistically, the film could have done with taking a leaf out of Larry Marley’s book and thinking outside the box.
Maze is available on DVD and digital download now