The great north­ern es­cape

Stephen Burke’s drama about the 1983 Maze prison break is at its most ef­fec­tive as an es­cape flick, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - THE TICKET REVIEWS -

Barry Ward and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in Maze

MAZE Directed by Stephen Burke. Star­ring Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Barry Ward, Martin McCann, Eileen Walsh, Aaron Mon­aghan, Ni­amh McGrady. 15A cert, gen re­lease, 93 min It hardly needs to be said that a few union­ist politi­cians have, be­fore see­ing the film, al­ready de­nounced Stephen Burke’s Maze as an in­sult to this and a mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of that. There are cer­tainly dan­gers here. It is some­times for­got­ten that a prison of­fi­cer, stabbed dur­ing the Maze prison es­cape of 1983, sub­se­quently died of a heart at­tack. It was not just the brave lark of song and fa­ble.

Work­ing from his own tight script, Burke has taken a re­spon­si­ble ap­proach to the ma­te­rial. The core re­la­tion­ship is that be­tween Larry Mar­ley (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a thought­ful repub­li­can pris­oner, and Gor­don Close (Barry Ward), a stressed guard.

Mar­ley is gam­ing Close to gain ac­cess to pass­words and se­cu­rity loop­holes, but, as the film pro­gresses, he guiltily de­vel­ops a re­spect for him. We see Gor­don de­fend­ing his fam­ily from a ter­ror­ist at­tack on an ev­ery­day shop­ping ex­pe­di­tion. He ends up liv­ing in a sort of sub­ur­ban cage. The sub­se­quent vi­o­lence from the screws is thus rea­son­ably con­tex­tu­alised.

The pic­ture is also sound on the le­gacy of the hunger strikes. Mar­ley – a gen­uine fig­ure mur­dered by the UVF in 1987 – con­ceives the mass es­cape as a way of demon­strat­ing that the move­ment re­mains un­bowed. Mean­while, he wor­ries about his own son fol­low­ing in his foot­steps. No­body who knows any­thing about this sorry his­tory would deny that it swells with such per­sonal con­tra­dic­tions.

Here’s the sur­prise. Al­though the film-mak­ers have dealt re­spon­si­bil­ity with the le­gacy, Maze is at its best when most like John Sturges’s The Great Es­cape. And it’s more like that film than we had any right to ex­pect.

The re­li­able Martin McCann – a charmer with flint in his soul – will have par­tic­u­lar rea­son for savour­ing the Richard At­ten­bor­ough role. The late Bri­tish ac­tor and di­rec­tor pushed McCann to the next level when he cast him op­po­site Shirley MacLaine in Clos­ing the Ring, and McCann re­pays the debt with a fo­cused turn as the pris­on­ers’ com­mand­ing of­fi­cer. He gets to re­peat a key scene from the Sturges film: he is forced to pro­hibit another es­cape at­tempt as he pri­ori­tises the mass break­out. Al­though Close is a braver, more prin­ci­pled man than Werner “the Fer­ret”, his in­ter­ac­tions with Larry sug­gest those be­tween James Gar­ner and the com­pli­ant Ger­man guard. The sheer scale of the es­cape kicks up un­avoid­able mem­o­ries of the break­out from Sta­lag Luft III. (Can there have been a sin­gle pris­oner un­fa­mil­iar with The Great Es­cape? I doubt it.)

The ten­sion is built up im­pres­sively. Vaughan-Lawlor com­bines raw com­mit­ment with a sneaky flex­i­bil­ity to give us an hon­est man who lies like a mas­ter. Ward works hard at al­low­ing only hints of vul­ner­a­bil­ity to leak through his buffed Ul­ster cara­pace. Stephen Ren­nicks’s sin­u­ous score Krautrocks us back to the early 1980s. Dave Gren­nan, a hugely ex­pe­ri­enced cam­era op­er­a­tor, brings damp men­ace to ev­ery shot of a de­pressed na­tion.

Not all the lo­gis­tics are ex­plained so ef­fec­tively as we might like. One cru­cial as­pect of the break­out seems to hap­pen as if by magic. Stu­dents of the in­ci­dent may also be dis­ap­pointed to dis­cover so lit­tle about the fa­mously chaotic af­ter­math. Sto­ries of es­capees wan­der­ing about the fields and wad­ing through the rivers are still told in the pubs of Ul­ster. There is much ma­te­rial for dark com­edy and wild ad­ven­ture there.

Still, it would be wrong to crit­i­cise the ta­lent for mak­ing the film they wanted to make. Burke has cho­sen to shoot an es­cape movie and, though a lit­tle dead­ened by its som­bre en­vi­ron­ment, Maze works well on those terms.

The least likely bits are all true. That counts as some sort of rec­om­men­da­tion.

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