Given the shadow they’ve cast over Anglo-Irish relations for the last 50 years, it’s strange how few decent films have come out of the Troubles and of those that have, how few have grappled directly with the reality of the situation. 

Yann Demange’s wonderful ’71 puts us ground zero in the middle of a chaotic riot and leaves us shell-shocked by a pub bombing but it’s breathless tale of a young British squaddie marooned on the hostile streets of Belfast, hunted by Republicans and Loyalists alike, is an urban survival thriller that could have been made by an on-form John Carpenter. The politics of terror take a back seat to gender politics (and that twist) in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game while Marc Evans’ adaptation of Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man takes a lurid stab at the Shankill Butchers even as Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s Nothing Personal treads similar ground in less Grand Guignol fashion. 

In recent years, only Steve McQueen’s somber Hunger, about the messianic Bobby Sands and the 1981 hunger strike that led to his death and the deaths of nine other IRA prisoners at the infamous Maze prison, has made any real attempt to address the remorseless futility of the tribal violence and the dogged obstinacy of it’s perpetrators that characterised that darkest period in Irish history. 

Dramatising the largest prison escape in UK history when 38 IRA prisoners seized control of their wing and made a break for it, leaving one guard dead and several seriously injured, Maze is a suitably tense, if low-key, little Irish thriller which takes up the tale of the Maze prison’s “blanket men” in the aftermath of the hunger strikes and dirty protests. Coming off protest, IRA prisoner Larry Marley (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor) is determined to exact vengeance on UK Prime Minister and the British Government for the deaths of his fellow hunger strikers. 

Slowly winning the trust of lonely, embittered warder Gordon Close (Barry Ward) who’s isolated and vulnerable after his family abandon him in the wake of an assassination attempt by a Republican hit team, Marley concocts a daring plan to stage a mass breakout from the Maze’s notorious H-blocks as a way of embarrassing the British Government. 

Mixing real people with fictionalised characters, it’s hard to care too much about the protagonists of Maze. While the Daily Mail will hate it and accuse it of glorifying terrorism, the film is remarkably even-handed, humanising Republicans and guards alike (though the Unionist Ulstermen are still cartoon bigots), the two protagonists never really engage, real-life mastermind Marley something of a cipher, if a resolute one, while composite character Gordon flips from embittered screw to (almost) humane warder in the space of five minutes. But the performances by Ward and Vaughn-Lawlor are exceptional, deserving of a more subtle script than the one they have which repeatedly hammers home the point that, regardless of which side of the bars they are on, both men are in prison. The film also relegates the aftermath of the escape, arguably a film in it’s own right, to a few brief shots of prisoners scarpering across fields and attempting to ford streams before a title card informs us that most of the men were recaptured in days. 

Tense and understated, Maze is a powder keg that sparks but never catches fire.

DVD Review: Maze
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