Northern Review: ‘Maze’

Maze is a portrayal of the 1983 breakout of thirty-eight republican prisoners from HMP Maze near Belfast, and is the latest cinematic representation of an episode from the Northern Ireland conflict. The film stars Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, best known for his leading role in Love/Hate, along with Barry Ward (The Fall, Rebellion) and Martin McCann (Ripper Street). It is written and directed by Steven Burke.

The Maze Prison was in many ways a microcosm of the Troubles. The prison housed more than 10,000 republican and loyalist prisoners between 1971 and 2000, with events inside often crucial in determining the course of the wider conflict.

The film focuses on IRA prisoner and escape mastermind Larry Marley (Vaughan-Lawlor). Together with his co-conspirators, including H-Block ‘officer commanding’ Oscar (McCann), Marley carefully formulates an escape plan by discovering weaknesses in the prison system and through drawing up sketches of the prison’s infrastructure. An aerial photograph of the prison smuggled in from the outside provokes amazement among the would-be-escapees who, it appears, had little understanding of the prison’s complex design.

At the core of the story is the relationship that develops between Marley and prison officer Gordon Close (Barry Ward), a hardened ‘screw’ with contempt for IRA prisoners. Marley volunteers himself for prison cleaning duties as a means of gaining the trust of the prison officers and furthering his escape plan.

The 1981 hunger strikes exert a particularly powerful ideological influence throughout the film. For Marley and his fellow IRA inmates, the breakout was about much more than escaping the confines of the Maze. While the British State may have thought they had broken the will of IRA prisoners in the aftermath of the hunger strikes, Marley was determined to show that not only could prisoners take control of an entire H-Block, but that they could also escape from a prison that the British government had famously described as among the most secure in Europe. Indeed, in a telling exchange between Marley and Warden Close at the end of the film, Marley proclaims: ‘a debt has been repaid to those [hunger strikers] men.’

One of the more revealing aspects of Maze is the insight it provides into the lives of those other than the prisoners. Following an attempted assassination by the IRA during a day off, Close has security gates installed inside his home while later, fearing for their safety, his wife and children move to London. This has a visible emotional impact on Close and rather ironically, plays into the escape plot. Close seeks marriage advise from Marley, illustrating the trust, however tenuous, he had developed in the prisoner.

“Tell me this, how do you keep your marriage going from in here?” Close asks. The domestic difficulties experienced by Close as a result of his job as a prison officer prompts Marley to speculate: “Maybe you’re just a prisoner like the rest of us.”

In another encounter, Marley meets with the wife of a deceased hunger striker to pass on a message from her husband’s deathbed. “What? Keep up the struggle while I starve myself to death for Ireland?” she responds, indicating ambivalence over his ‘martyrdom’.

The fact that Maze depicts an episode from the Troubles means it will almost certainly draw criticism and divide opinion, particularly among viewers in Northern Ireland. However, the film is careful not to glorify the prison escape or the provisional IRA’s armed campaign, nor is it apologetic about their actions. Instead, if offers a compelling dramatisation of a contested and raw period in Northern Ireland’s recent history.

Maze (2017) is a co-production between Cyprus Avenue Films, Filmgate Films, and Mammoth Films. It is due for general release on 22 September.

About Matthew Jackson

Matthew is a Phd student in History at Queen's University Belfast. Research interests relate to representations of the past, including commemoration and memorialisation.