Friday, 9 February 2018
The problem with being interested in that period of recent history known as the Troubles is that you're sometimes left disappointed by the films that set out to depict or dramatise the events. Often through no real fault of their own, they're dwarfed by other productions who have trod a similar path in telling more or less the same story. That's the case with writer/director Stephen Burke's recent offering, Maze, which fails to step out from the shadows of Steve McQueen's Hunger in its dramatisation of the mass breakout from H Block 7 of HMP Maze in September, 1983, just two years after Bobby Sands and nine other inmates died from hunger strike.
Opened in 1971 on the site of the former Royal Air Force station Long Kesh, HMP Maze was considered the most impregnable prison in Europe; a literal labyrinth of H-shaped buildings designed to disorientate inmates, it was surrounded by 15ft-high fences and concrete walls. However despite such seemingly impossible odds, 38 Republicans managed to break out, with 19 caught within two days and a further 19 going on to successfully evade capture. The escape went down in history as the biggest Europe had seen since the POW camps of WWII and served as a massive morale boost for the IRA who had been left reeling from the deaths of ten hunger strikers in the summer of 1981.
The plot of Burke's film sees the escape-planners determined to succeed in memory of those very inmates who gave their lives two years earlier. As such, comparisons are easily drawn to Hunger and not found in Maze's favour. McQueen's film had an intense yet poetic Alan Clarke-like feel, but Burke fails to invest his material with much flourish at all; visually it's a derivative damp and bland affair which, whilst it impresses from a period recreation point of view, fails to rise above the limits of TV drama. Burke also disappoints as a screenwriter, with too much of the film set at a plodding pace, with some particularly noticeable hackeyed dialogue. One scene has Tom Vaughan-Lawlor's Larry Marley, the mastermind of the escape, accuse Warder Gordon Close (Barry Ward) of being just as much a prisoner as he is - seemingly there's a screenwriting guide somewhere that states this stereotypical exchange must be included in every prison based movie!
Ultimately the plot depends on Marley efforts to befriend Gordon to achieve his bid for freedom and whilst both actors are capable enough to tell this story, they're let down by Burke's inability to convey any real, deep sense of character for either of them. A particular subplot concerning Marley's disappointment at seeing his son following in his footsteps on the outside goes nowhere too and feels tacked on. The suggestion that there are no winners in a violent and damaging political situation that is forced to repeat itself over and over again is a credit to the film I guess, but perhaps by its very nature, Maze is told primarily and somewhat sympathetically from the Republican POV, a stance which may serve to infuriate those on the other side of this divide even to this day.
In the end, Maze is an unshowy more or less competent dramatisation of events that perhaps deserved a better telling than it gains here. It fails to hold its head up high alongside the likes of Hunger and ought to be filed alongside the somewhat forgettable Troubles set films such as Shadow Dancer instead. It could be worse though, it could have joined the offensive stinkers like The Devil's Own.