Directed by Stephen Burke. Starring Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Barry Ward, Martin McCann, Eileen Walsh, Aaron Monaghan, Niamh McGrady. Running Time: 93 Minutes.
It goes without saying that a certain degree of even-handedness is required when dealing with subject matter of this nature. The element of bias that many viewers will no doubt be expecting (and even relishing the prospect of) is, thankfully, absent. The jailed IRA members are not saintly freedom fighters, nor are the Unionists inhuman or unrelatable. What does emerge is an effective examination of the human factors involved in Northern Ireland’s troubled past, as well as the depth and venom of the divide that fuelled it. With only 93 minutes (albeit a very tight 93 minutes) to work with, however, the film is never allowed to wander too far away from the business of being a prison escape thriller.
Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s Larry Marley seems at first an unassuming sort; weak-looking and softly spoken, he attracts derision from fellow inmates upon his return from the blanket protest (republican prisoners’ refusal to wear prison uniforms on the grounds that, as political prisoners, they should not have had to do so).
Marley strikes up a relationship with an initially hostile Gordon Close (Ward), a well-respected guard with a fierce disdain for the nationalist movement. It is here that Marley’s talents become obvious; his outwardly amicable nature disarms Close, thus making escape a possibility. He goes as far during one conversation as to condemn the actions of nationalist hunger strikers as pointless; his commitment to his cause is such that the verbal dismissal of his keenest beliefs barely costs him a thought. It is this Machiavellian resourcefulness that comes to define his character.
After the inevitable period of dismissive scoffing from other inmates, Marley’s proposal of escape is taken seriously and preparatory work begins. The film’s middle act outlines the escape’s practical elements, and does so with a well-judged amount of detail.
A word must be said for Vaughan-Lawlor’s imperviousness to the dreaded typecast. Having spent five years in what was arguably Irish television’s most recognisable role, he has managed still to emerge as a versatile and credible actor in his own right. His performance here is a strong one, despite some questionable interpretations of Northern pronunciation. Ward is equally effective in the other load-bearing role.
Ultimately, this film’s greatest strength probably lies in its succinctness. Extraneous detail could have interrupted the flow and suspense, and too detailed an examination of the trials faced by either side of the cultural divide could have suggested a flavour of partiality. Burke has skilfully navigated his way around these pitfalls to produce a gripping thriller with historical value. A caveat, however; the brevity with which the period after the escape is dealt with is a major shortfall. Too many questions are left to the closing scroll of text to answer. That aside, MAZE has achieved what it wanted to achieve in fine fashion.