Updated: Apr 25, 2019
Stephen Burke's drama recounts the real-life story of the 1983 breakout of 38 IRA inmates from a seemingly impregnable Irish prison.
Prison break movies don't come much subtler than Maze. Less a thriller and more psychological drama, Stephen Burke's film dramatizes the real-life 1983 escape of 38 IRA prisoners from Northern Ireland's supposedly impregnable HM Prison Maze, still the biggest prison escape in U.K. history. It largely concentrates on the relationship between the escape's planner and the prison guard to whom he attempts to get close in order to glean vital information. It's an intelligent, well-done pic whose restraint can be commended. But it also operates at such a slow burn that it comes close to fizzling out completely.
The breakout was organized by Larry Marley (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Avengers: Infinity War), who had participated in the hunger strike that resulted in the deaths of Bobby Sands and nine others. Two years later, Marley is still in prison and devises a plan for a mass escape of Republican political prisoners, one that he hopes will make a dramatic and symbolic statement. At first, the prisoners' IRA leader (a compelling Martin McCann) has little use for Marley's ambitious proposal which he considers too risky, but he eventually accedes.
To facilitate his scheme, Larry plays the long game. He slowly ingratiates himself to Gordon (Barry Ward, Jimmy's Hall) one of the more even-keeled guards. Gordon has been personally affected by the violence sweeping his country, having recently survived an attempt on his life that resulted in his wife and daughter leaving the country for their own safety. Despite his suspicions, Gordon eventually finds himself opening up to the relentlessly friendly prisoner who makes a point of pitching in to help with chores even when it's not required.
These quiet interactions, forming most of the film's running time, would quickly prove tedious save for the incisive dialogue and the superb performances by the two leads. Vaughan-Lawlor, not afraid to make his character unlikable at times, superbly conveys Marley's canniness as well as his growing respect for the guard who is much less brutal than his colleagues. And Ward does an excellent job of suggesting the vulnerabilities that led this particular guard to become the object of Marley's duplicity. But even with the actors' skills, the talkiness eventually becomes wearisome, and you begin longing for the action to begin.
Unfortunately, when it does occur in the movie's final minutes, the actual breakout proves not particularly thrilling. Brief and perfunctory, the sequence feels anticlimactic considering the lengthy build-up preceding it. Nor does this Irish production provide much in the way of contextual information that would help viewers not already familiar with the characters and events being depicted.
Maze is certainly heavy on atmosphere, depicting the squalid prison environs all too realistically (much of it was shot in a recently closed prison in Cork). The monochromatic visual style becomes tough to take, with neither the visuals nor the editing possessing the dynamism necessary to relieve the oppressive claustrophobia.
Production companies: Mammoth Films, Cypress Avenue Films, Filmgate Films Distributor: Lightyear Entertainment Cast: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Barry Ward, Martin McCann, Eileen Walsh, Lalo Roddy, Aaron Monaghan Director-screenwriter: Stephen Burke Producers: Jane Doolan, Brendan J. Byrne Director of photography: David Grennan Production designer: Owen Power Editor: John O'Connor Composer: Stephen Rennicks Costume designer: Aisling Wallace Byrne Casting: Maureen Hughes