There is a distinct strain of melancholy nihilism throughout Stephen Burke’s MAZE. Based on the 1983 prison break by 38 inmates of the eponymous maximum security prison in Norther Ireland, it mixes the suspense of plotting an escape dependant upon split-second timing from an inescapable prison with the psychological games the prisoners play with the guards and with each other. The result is a film that is gripping for reasons not usually associated with suspense films.
The Maze incarcerated members of the IRA as well as the non-political criminal element, here depicted as British loyalists. At the film begins, a hunger strike has just ended, with one participant, Larry Marley (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) being branded a traitor by his fellow IRA members for giving up the secondary protest of wearing only a blanket. That he is given civilian clothes to wear instead of a prison uniform rankles the cell block’s warder, Gordon Close (Barry Ward), who worries that any deviation from strict discipline will show a weakness that the prison can’t afford. This puts him at odds with the prison authorities, even as Larry’s new cell assignment in the wing that houses the British loyalists, who want to bring the conflicts of the outside world to their cell block, adds to his already emotionally fraught situation.
The psychological pressure on Larry to square things with the other IRA inmates becomes the impetus for the prison break. It’s not just the thick walls, barbed wires, and armed guards that stand between Larry and freedom, it’s the very layout of the prison, maze-like and deliberately disorienting for the inmates within, who have no idea of the building’s layout, nor where they reside within it. Even as Larry pieces together information by putting together bits and pieces of information from other inmates in different part of the prison, he also starts a subtle charm offensive against Gordon. Nothing obvious, which would provoke immediate suspicion from the seasoned officer, but rather a random comment here and there to lull the other man into a false sense of security. An effort that requires as much piecing together of information about Gordon’s life outside the prison as the information from other inmates contributes to Larry’s carefully drawn map that he works on in secret.
The striking cinematography is as shadowy is the tangled motivations at work here. Larry’s performance with Gordon is so good it begins to lull us into that same false sense of security. Just how false is it? Is it possible to feign empathy so expertly that the feigner is also taken in? It’s not the only challenge the audience is given. Burke’s penetrating dialogue questions issues of honor and loyalty with scenes where the protagonists are confronted with the results of their choices. Within the prison walls, visits between Larry and his teenage son (Ross McKinney), who has spent 10 years with an imprisoned father and is starting his own involvement with the IRA, and with the widow (Elva Trill) of a hunger-striker who succumbed to self-starvation just after giving Larry a last message for her. The violence of their anger at being second-best to the ones they love so much is a thing of quiet power almost too intense for mere words to express. A single tear is a more damning indictment than the bitter words that accompany it. Outside the prison walls, Gordon’s marriage unravels when the dangers of his job, and his refusal to allow them to make him quit, prove too much for his wife.
The tangential connection, exploited by the calculating Larry, offers another element to be introduced. The men, one wary, the other manipulative, are for those moments interacting not at as political adversaries, but as people. There are many such moments, never calling attention to themselves, but provide a solid subtext without becoming didactic, even during the escape itself, with inmates and guards having surprisingly sincere exchanges, and Larry and Gordon’s relationship becoming even more confused. Vaughan-Lawlor and Ward play the ambiguity with aplomb, imbuing an expression with a wealth of possibilities, and a pause with an action of monumental import. There is also a touch of mordant humor that is both an acute commentary and a relief in the bleak landscape, actual and psychological, wielded as much as weapons, offensive and defensive, as the pugnacious mode of conversation.
MAZE doesn’t disappoint when the break occurs with its close calls and sudden twists, but the drama of all that has come before is what sticks. A well-crafted character study of people under stress from many directions, some self-inflicted, it’s a haunting heartbreaker of what-ifs and if-onlys.