"It’s a great skill to be so even-handed and lend both sympathy and anger to two sides of such a debate, but Maze manages to do just that"
Making a film set in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison during the 1980’s is no enviable task. Aside from facing the religious and political arguments that such a setting evokes, there is also the danger of having the final output compared to Steve McQueen’s brilliant Hunger, which saw Michael Fassbender make a name for himself as IRA activist Bobby Sands who, along with others, starved himself in the jail in an attempt to get the British government to recognize him as a political prisoner.
Although not being in any way a sequel, Maze follows on directly from where Hunger finished, telling another true story. After the hunger strike has been called off, the jailed Republicans have been granted the rights they were after, although formal recognition as political prisoners was never officially acknowledged.
We follow Republican prisoner Larry Marley (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) who is moved to a Loyalist wing from where, in order to make a statement about the movement, he hatches a plan for himself and others to escape. The political divide between the two sides are apparent, and further complicated by the fact that the guards are loyalists too, and subsequently are subject to threats from the outside.
Writer/Director Stephen Burke however never takes a side, creating a balanced view of the proceedings and the arguments between the factions. It’s a smart approach and one that acknowledges that such debates are far from black and white.
There is a political undertone to it all of course, although that the two sides are catholic and protestant barely gets mentioned – a smart move, given the religious symbolism that enriched Hunger’s final third.
Central to it all is the relationship between Marley and loyalist guard Gordon (Barry Ward). On opposing sides in more ways than one, Marley uses Gordon to cipher information vital to his plans, yet the two strike up something of an unexpected friendship. Burke reflects the two characters in one another– both family men, struggling to keep it all together and enshrouded by their circumstances. Gordon may leave the prison at the end of each day, but he is just as trapped by the violent situation as those who are incarcerated. The two actors bring the necessary complexities to both roles, creating fully-rounded individuals that in the hands of less capable performers could perhaps have fallen into caricature.
As the plot unfolds, there is a smart, understated tension as the prisoners plot their escape plan all the while trying to keep it non-violent – as Marley states, if they were to harm anyone, any publicity would focus on that and not the escape itself. This atmosphere is maintained throughout the films climax, reaching a conclusion that many may already know but maintains the tightrope of balance that has been walked by Burke throughout.
It’s a great skill to be so even-handed and lend both sympathy and anger to two sides of such a debate, but Maze manages to do just that, resulting in a moving and memorable film about an interesting episode of a dark and violent historical past.