Declan Toohey, Contributor.
Any movie set in the Maze prison during the 1980’s will struggle to wrest itself from the influence of Steve McQueen’s knockout debut, ‘Hunger’ (2008)—and, indeed, the latest release from Stephen Burke contains shots that look as if they were collected from ‘Hunger’s’ cutting room floor, or were constructed immediately after the director and crew attended a screening of the film. However, where ‘Hunger’ condemned the Thatcher administration rather than the republican and/or loyalist factions of Belfast, ‘Maze’ wears its republican sympathies on its sleeve. However, it does give depth to its loyalist characters in an attempt to balance its politics. What allows ‘Maze’ to move beyond such politics, though, is its performance-driven treatment of personal struggle and betrayal.
The movie opens with newsreel footage of the Maze prison in 1983, shot from above, as we’re informed that the hunger strikes—started by republican prisoners in a bid to gain political status as inmates—have finally come to an end. And in this sense, ‘Maze’ picks up where ‘Hunger’ left off, albeit in a less poetic style of realism. Larry Marley (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor,) having received civilian clothing, is moved to a loyalist ward and in the process is called a traitor by a fellow prisoner. There is a night of what appears to be psychological anguish with Larry writhing in bed, and the next morning he goes to Warder Gordon Close (Barry Ward) to volunteer himself for work. Here, through the close-ups and shallow-focus cinematography of David Grennan, we see Larry’s struggle portrayed in a clear manner: he longs to escape, and will work for Gordon so that he may gain a better knowledge of the prison and one day may hopefully escape.
Similarly, Gordon’s struggle is also real, as we see early on in the first act. One afternoon, having been out shopping and for dinner, Gordon and his family return to their car and, while doing so, are approached by a menacing gunman. Gordon is shot in the shoulder, but nevertheless manages to neutralise his would-be hitman. Subsequently, fearing for her family’s safety, Gordon’s wife moves to London with her daughter, leaving Gordon alone and powerless. His predicament—namely his inability to provide a safe home for the ones he loves—is a painful one and, to be sure, a further reminder of the futility and internecine nature of The Troubles.
Meanwhile, back in the prison, Larry teams up with Oscar (Martin McCann) and begins to plan their escape. There is an efficiency to their work that recalls other prison-escape movies like ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (1994) or recent heist films such as ‘The Town’ (2014) or ‘Logan Lucky.’ (2017) And it’s here, as the audience begin to consider how Larry will bring about his escape, where the tension begins to rise, carefully building up to the final act in which the prisoners ultimately put their plan into action. Until then, the film is punctuated by strategically-planted doses of physical and verbal conflict among inmates—including an all-out riot that results in the segregation of the prisoners—and melancholy moments in which Larry draws a profile of his young son, who we learn is also considering following in his Father’s foorsteps, or writes letters to his wife Kate.
Above all, ‘Maze’ is an entertaining, though not entirely necessary, re-enactment of history. Its visual style may be too derivative or unadventurous for its own good, but the way in which it draws empathy for both of its opposing protagonists ensures that it never becomes a sub-average film. Moreover the naturalistic dialogue, as in all good period dramas, faithfully reflects how normal people speak. And when, near the end of the film, Gordon feels betrayed by Larry—without giving too much away—the suggestion is that the political situation in Northern Ireland during The Troubles was a vicious circle in which no peaceful solution was to be found. Stephen Burke’s movie does well to utilise this theme, but its problem is that its underlying aesthetic is similarly caught in a vicious circle in which no new cinematic style is to be found. Like Stephen Fingleton’s ‘The Survivalist’ (2015) and Mark O’Connor’s ‘Cardboard Gangsters,’ (2017) ‘Maze’ puts the vernacular to good use but, unlike them, fails to forge for itself a visual style that is in any way refreshing.
‘Maze’ is out now in selected cinemas.
Writer and Director: Stephen Burke.
Cinematographer: David Grennan.
Starring: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Barry Ward, Martin McCann, Eileen Walsh, Aaron Monaghan.
Genre: Drama, thriller.
Runtime: 93 minutes.
For fans of: ’71, (Yann Demange, 2014) Bloody Sunday, (Paul Greengrass, 2002) In the Name of the Father. (Jim Sheridan, 1994)
Bottom line: The personal struggles of and the relationship between ‘Maze’s’ charismatic leads, Tom-Vaughan Lawlor and Barry Ward, elevate this prison drama above second-rate republican nostalgia.