“…a bloodless escapade, lacking in the tension and thrills needed to really pull it off” – MacDara Conroy on NI prison break drama Maze
‘Funded with the television licence fee,’ the credits are at pains to inform us at the start of Maze, a dramatisation of the 1983 prison break by Republican internees from the notorious H Blocks. Yet perhaps RTÉ and the broadcasting authorities should have thought twice about using viewers’ money to produce what amounts to quasi-propaganda for a very particular narrative of an off-puttingly complex story.
It’s 1983 and in the wake of the extreme protests that made a martyr of Bobby Sands and his fellow hunger strikers, the authorities are scrambling to fix the mess. Their solution is typical of British attitudes to Northern Ireland. In a gesture to ease tensions, the wardens restore some Republican privileges that had been denied with the end of Special Category Status. But they also begin moving them into wings with Loyalist detainees, in a ham-fisted effort to make the two sides police each other.
Within this powder keg, Larry Marley (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) is hatching an audacious bid for freedom, expanding his mental map of a single wing into a full-blown diagram of the prison complex — and a plot for an escape route — once he ropes his OC (Martin McCann) and a few trusted assistants into the scheme.
A key element of the plan requires Marley to earn the trust of typical hard-case Protestant prison warden Gordon Close (Barry Ward), whose armour starts to disintegrate when an IRA assassination attempt prompts the breakdown of his marriage. Their relationship grows into a genuine acquaintance, a mutual understanding of two fathers who know they could have done better. Vaughan-Lawlor and Ward are at their best when they play this angle, with as much depth as the film allows.
This story, however, takes a back seat to what’s ultimately a bloodless escapade, lacking in the tension and thrills needed to really pull it off. As true as the story may be, there’s nothing particularly exciting in watching the process, the visuals only emphasising the monotony of life within Long Kesh’s endless corridors of grey concrete.
Writer-director Stephen Burke, who touched on related themes in the 1990s shorts After 68 and 81, sidesteps the usual trap of romanticising the struggle that affected last year’s documentary Bobby Sands: 66 Days. But he does this by not really concerning his story with the Troubles at large. Despite it bringing all these characters together in this situation, the violence of that time is considered in the abstract for the most part. When it isn’t, it’s framed with only a pat a sense of regret.
Moreover, our hero Marley is entirely separated from the actions of his brethren outside the prison’s walls. He is presented as a noble figure, a man only removed from society for the dint of his politics; a veritable Andy Dufresne we’re supposed to root for when he gets one over on the screws with his great escape. The film saves for its end plate text that upon his release, Marley took up arms once more before his murder by Loyalist paramilitaries shortly thereafter. It makes one feel we’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes as much as Ward’s sympathetic warden.
Maze will no doubt play well with a specific audience, many of them abroad, who only want to see their history told in a comfortable manner. It’s not telling a story that hasn’t already been told; it’s not framing history in a way that’s in any way useful, or even gripping on a visceral level, as did Yann Demange’s Troubles-set thriller ’71. It’s a true story that deserves to be related in more than this pedestrian, cheerleading manner. Maybe next time spend my licence fee on that.