Cinematic Releases: Maze (2017) - Reviewed

Around 2008, British director Steve McQueen unveiled the shocking Caméra d'Or winning historical drama Hunger with Michael Fassbender, chronicling Provisional Irish Republican Army volunteer and MP Bobby Sands’ 1981 IRA hunger strike and the no wash protest.  The film took place within the walls of Her Majesty’s Prison Maze in Northern Ireland and was an unbroken gaze into one man starving himself to death until you’re left in a catatonic state of abject horror. 

Nine years later, Dublin writer-director Stephen Burke would revisit Her Majesty’s Prison Maze with the aptly titled Maze: a fictionalized account of the major 1983 prison breakout which followed the tail end of the Irish hunger strike.  While treading familiar ground, the two films within Her Majesty’s Maze couldn’t be more different.  Where McQueen’s film was a chilly and distant slice of unfeeling visceral horror, Burke’s briskly paced film gets into the prison blocks with Larry Marley (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) who engineered the prison escape which let loose some thirty-eight IRA prisoners from the high security prison.

A tense, often claustrophobic and monochromatic looking thriller echoing the visual styles of David Fincher or The Wachowskis, Burke’s account of the interior of the Maze is a thoroughly engaging and engrossing prison movie.  Closer to Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11 than McQueen’s deliberately deadening experience for all of the interpersonal relations and exchanges between prisoner and warden, in this case Gordon Close (Barry Ward), Maze makes a great companion piece to McQueen’s film by continuing the true story while finding its own cinematic footing. 

Performances by both lead actors are strong and in microcosm represent two ordinary men trapped on opposite sides of the political fence and pay special attention to how the ordeal affects each character’s marital lives.  Both men just want to return home to their wives but are bound by a situation they must fight that is seemingly beyond both man’s control.  As a loose unspoken bond forms between the two which will invariably be betrayed when the time comes, there’s a loose allegory of the impending peace talks that will commence as the men recognize their own respective loyalties to their causes while sharing a kindred human bond that will hopefully overcome the political boundaries.

Nominated for four Irish film and television Academy Awards, Burke’s film which proved to be a critical and commercial hit in Ireland now makes its stateside splash for domestic viewers to see for themselves.  Some may find the thick Irish accents a bit trying to get used to, though English subtitles are provided rather than redubbing the dialogue ala the US release of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting.  

Though some critics from the outset complained the film came off as one-sided, for my money it gave equal measure to both sides while trying to find a meeting of the minds somewhere in the middle.  As it stands, it’s a solid prison movie and an important chapter in the ongoing evolution of Irish world cinema.

--Andrew Kotwicki