Against the backdrop of Brexit, now may be the perfect time for movies to remind us that the British Isles have a long history of tumult and chaos within its borders. Now that there is widespread panic and confusion about what Great Britain may look and feel like in a post-Brexit Europe, it was not too long ago in Britain’s history that another political upheaval was taking place. But while Brexit is based on political manipulations, the civil unrest in Northern Ireland in the ‘70s and ‘80s, commonly known as “the Troubles,” were seeded in religion and love of country, two powerful forces which resulted in a terribly violent and chaotic chapter in Irish—and British—history.
There have been many movies about or set against the backdrop of the Troubles, my personal favorite being Jim Sheridan’s 1993 gem, In the Name of the Father. Nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, In the Name of the Father is about an Irish man wrongly convicted for an IRA bombing and the English lawyer who takes his case. Daniel Day-Lewis only made 20 movies in his career (he still claims to be retired now), and I consider this one of his best performances. In the Name of the Father spends a great deal of its time in the prison where Day-Lewis’s character was sent after his conviction. It’s not uncommon for movies about the Troubles to be set in a prison. Hunger (2003), for example, which launched both director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender’s careers, is about the famous IRA hunger strike that took place at a Northern Ireland prison in 1981. And now there is a new film set two years later in that same prison. Maze is both the name of the movie and the name of the prison that, within the span of two years was the site of two watershed moments in the history of the Irish Revolution: the hunger strike (1981) and, in 1983, the most famous prison escape in British history, where 38 IRA prisoners managed to find a way out of the most famous prison in Europe. It is a compelling story that was overdue for telling, and the film is just as intriguing and dramatic as you would expect.
Finally making its way to American screens two years after its release in Europe, Maze is written and directed by Stephen Burke and stars Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Barry Ward as an IRA prisoner and a prison guard at the prison famously known as the Long Kesh, a maximum-security prison considered to be one of the most escape-proof prisons in Europe. Vaughan-Lawlor plays prisoner Larry Marley and Ward plays his guard, Gordon Close. Based on a true story, Maze focuses on Marley, a prisoner suffering from survivor’s guilt in the aftermath of the hunger strike that resulted in the death of 10 of his compatriots before being called to an end by rebel leaders. Feeling he owes something to the memory of those prisoners who died and to prove they didn’t die in vain, Marley plans an elaborate escape and uses his nascent friendship with Close to gain intel for the plan.
It would have been so easy to make a movie that was a cookie-cutter escape movie. We’ve seen a million of those, but what sets Maze apart is its commitment to simplicity and textured performances. It also could have easily gotten bogged down by the fascinating elements of an Irish prison in the early ‘80s: Irish loyalists and Irish rebels imprisoned together, being watched over by supposedly neutral—but still Irish—guards. The filmmakers could have so easily blown this movie up to make this uneasy mix the focal point of the movie, but they instead keep it streamlined by focusing on two men, on opposite sides of the wall, as their fates become entwined during this moment in history.
Burke crafts a screenplay which has the perfect amount of tension as well as color, as we get to know the characters just enough to get a sense of who they are. Vaughan-Lawlor, a perfect blend of Justin Theroux and Stephen Rea (which recalls for me another IRA-themed movie I love, The Crying Game), is superb here, a blend of seething anger and remorseful guilt, a man struggling with his conviction. Ward is just as strong as the dedicated guard, who, despite losing everything, remains steadfast to the job. Both actors are ones I hope to see again in many more projects.
In the ranks of prison escape movies, Maze isn’t nearly as thrilling and action-packed as you would hope, but its authenticity (it was filmed at a real prison in Cork City, Ireland, that had just been decommissioned), intimacy and ability to create viable characters against a complex political backdrop makes it a compelling experience, especially for anyone who is interested in this fascinating time in British and Irish history.