Stephen Burke’s Maze is Mature and Ethical Filmmaking
Director: Stephen Burke Starring: Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Barry Ward, Martin McCann Running Time: 92 minutes
Maze tells the story of the mass breakout of 38 IRA prisoners from the HMP Maze prison, which was built specifically for them, in 1983.
Maze‘s efforts to humanise all sides of the Troubles, including those suffering on the side lines, make it a compelling watch. Stephen Rennick’s gentle soundtrack and the cool blues of the prison are sublime.
Larry (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and Gordon (Barry Ward) give stand-out performances. They play an IRA foot soldier and a prison guard respectively. The way that they bounce off each other gels the film together and conveys a sweet sadness at the fact that forces outside of themselves are running their lives. Although they had choices, they felt like they were simply doing the right thing and that’s something no amount of prison, divorce or unfortunately even death from hunger strike can take away. The writer/director said that this was deliberate, he wanted to show “the potential of dialogue, if there is message in the movie that is what it is trying to be“.
Maze avoids frills, choosing instead to use its setting to get across claustrophobia and scale at alternate turns. Burke wants us to understand how large and complex the prison is without losing sense of how small it feels to the inmates. We get overhead shots and some Dutch angles, sparse soundtrack and it gives us room to focus in on the characters and their feelings which is an interesting decision for a Male Melodrama like this.
Ultimately, it’s a timely film. Burke shows the heavily guarded lives that people were living at the time, the shopping trips with armed guards, the caged up life of Gordon and his family, who like it or not is carrying out a job. Maze reminds how recent this all was which is so important in light of Brexit and the suggestion of a new border. The fact that the film purposefully avoids glamourising the prison break or fully choosing an allegiance one way or the other makes for a mature and ethical film. It has been criticised by some for shying away from showing the guards who were stabbed and shot during the breakout, but Burke said that this choice was out of consideration for their families.
Although it’s true to life, it’s not every day we see a Male Melodrama end with a choice not to act. Larry decides he won’t join the breakout himself after an emotionally-charged visit from his son. This bookends the film as it started with Larry ending his hunger strike.
Larry Marley’s family have actually viewed the film and according to them “It protrays him as a republican and a family man, which he was“, and I think it added a layer that he was trying to prevent his son from joining the IRA from the inside. As Larry says to Gordon, he doesn’t feel there is a choice. But he clearly sees a light at the end of the tunnel for Northern Ireland. So when it comes to it, he chooses his family.
Despite the heavy subject matter, Maze expresses a sense of humour that is unique to our island. From the fact that they get their intel on the prison layout from the news to Larry building a friendship fuelled by tea with Gordon, it’s a funny film even if its humour comes through gritted teeth.
As I said, the film takes great lengths to humanise its characters. Where it falls down is its depiction of women. There are exactly 3 women in this film; one to show the difficulty of being a Republican wife with an imprisoned husband, one to show how trapped the prison guards were despite being ostensibly free and one to show the devastating impact of the hunger strikes. They barely have names and have no existence outside of their husbands. (3.5 / 5)
Maze opens in Irish cinemas today, September the 22nd.