The break-out from the Maze prison in 1983 was ultimately unsuccessful – most of the 38 prisoners who escaped were either captured or killed – but it could be argued that it galvanised the powers-that-be towards the Good Friday Agreement which occurred more than a decade later.
This brilliant film is set in the aftermath of the hunger strike that resulted in the deaths of 10 Republicans and the IRA’s subsequent abolition of the ‘dirty protest’. The prison authorities looked on this as a British victory. The escape that occupies the lion’s share of Maze lets us know in no uncertain terms it was anything but that.
Political films are infinitely better when they replace ‘agitprop’ elements with pulsating drama. This one does exactly that, carrying all the pace of a thriller with it. It has an electrifying atmosphere even though we know what happens in the end.
The main focus is the relationship between a warder, Gordon Close (Barry Ward) and an inmate, Larry Marley (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor). This acts as a microcosm of the wider dynamic apparent in the friction between the Unionists and Republicans elsewhere in the prison.
Larry pretends he’s deserted ‘the cause’ so he can be transferred to another wing – the one where the main security system is located. Here he undertakes ‘skivvy’ duties like mopping floors. It seems like an insult to the hunger strikers who gave their lives for the dignity of wearing their own clothes. It results in him being dubbed a traitor by those unaware of what he’s up to.
He patiently listens to Gordon sounding off on what he sees as the pointlessness of the armed struggle. He gives him to believe he’s with him in at least some of his arguments. A grudging friendship develops between them.
At one point Gordon even finds himself divulging his marital problems to Larry. The dropping of his personal guard means the relaxation of security as well. This plays into the hands of the break-out plan Larry is masterminding with the other internees.
Whatever one feels about the moral or political credos of the IRA, most people agree they were one of the most intricate organisations in history and also one of the most difficult for the British to break down. Isis has probably taken over that mantle now.
Larry’s discovery that a simple playing card he finds in Gordon’s jacket is what gets the prison gates to open is a ‘eureka’ moment for him. Elsewhere, letters to loved ones are nonchalantly smuggled to and fro in thumbnail-size packages.
Stephen Burke’s direction sustains the tension admirably. The film boasts bravura performances from Vaughan-Lawlor (you’ll know him better as Nidge from Love/Hate) and Ward, two men who are polar opposites politically but equally passionate about their beliefs.
“There’ll come a day when people like me will be a thing of the past,” Larry tells his son in one scene. And so it came to pass.