Gritty, taut and compelling, Maze is is based on the true story of the 1983 escape of 38 IRA prisoners from the notorious HMP Maze, also known as Long Kesh or the H Blocks. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is mesmerising as the steely Larry Marley.
Two years before the film takes up the evolving story, ten republican prisoners lost their lives on hunger strike in the H Blocks, while seeking the right to be treated as political prisoners.The depressed, almost directionless atmosphere in the wake of those deaths casts its shadow early over Stephen Burke’s splendid screenplay. That sense of futility and pointlessness will soon be banished, at least within the ranks of Republican prisoners, when the wily Larry Marley begins to hatch his plan.
Marley is visited by the widow (played by Elva Trill) of one of the deceased hunger strikers who had once been his friend. At first the widow is resentful that she has lost the love of her life, but Marley makes her see things differently. Speaking to her across the table in the visitor's room, he simply recalls how his late friend once described to him the thrill of first seeing the young woman, before he first asked her out. It is one of the film’s best scenes, subtle and moving.
Later, Marley is visited by his own son who has similar misgivings about his father’s many years of absence while in prison. Thus, the film shines a light on familial tensions and pressures and illuminates other aspects of that profoundly traumatic early 1980s period in the North of Ireland.
As the story begins, Republican prisoners have been sent to intermingle with Loyalist prisoners with whom they share a wing at Long Kesh. Running the gauntlet of sectarian abuse as best he can, Marley keeps his powder dry and quietly begins to plot the sketchy details of an escape plan. He proposes his idea to his fellow prisoner, named Oscar, the IRA OC in fact, who is played by Martin McCann. He is initially reluctant to commit but eventually joins the escape bid along with another two other prisoners, as the mapping and the tactics of the break-out are methodically worked out.
Meanwhile, Marley insinuates himself into the company of the spiteful, contemptuous prison officer Gordon Close (Barry Ward). Alert and patient, keeping his steely nerve, Marley endures Close's patronising insults solely with a view to learning not just about his personal movements within the prison but also the timetables and how the prison is actually controlled.
Knowledge is power and with such painstaking study, Marley will know the opportune time to marshal his fellow prisoners for a bold escape attempt. To elaborate further would be to spoil, but you will be riveted to your seat in what is a refreshingly authentic film, which has not one false note.
Made on a budget of €1.8 million Maze was in fact filmed at the other end of the island, in the recently decommissioned Cork prison. A week of studio interiors were shot in the Swedish city of Gothenburg- the film is in fact an Irish/Swedish co-production financed the Irish Film Board, RTÉ, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and Film Väst.
Key to the success of Maze must be the participation of its co-producer, Belfast-man Brendan Byrne, maker of a BBC documentary Breakout concerning the escape. Byrne also made 66 Days, the profoundly moving documentary about Bobby Sands which appeared to similar acclaim last year. Recommended.