Belfast Telegraph

Review: Maze a compelling study of jailbreak, far from IRA propaganda

Review

By Malachi O'Doherty

A weedy and bleak little IRA man, humiliated for having come off the blanket protest, plans a mass jail break from the Maze. That's the basic story.

Larry Marley, played by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, is a mix of steely resolve and strategic intelligence but gives way occasionally to flashes of emotion.

There is a lot of flinging things across rooms in this film as men succumb to pressure, but it is ultimately their ability to contain their fears and rages that enables them to continue and survive.

At the core of the story is the relationship that always seems about to develop between Marley and prison officer Gordon Close, played by Barry Ward, a hard-headed screw who has contempt for the IRA prisoners.

It would be no spoiler to say that in the end 38 men get out of the Maze; the unpredictable part is the question of whether these two men ultimately bond or arrive at some concern for each other's welfare. The tension is in that prospect hovering close, but never close enough, as the plot advances.

Their dealings start when one day Marley offers himself as a volunteer mop pusher.

Given that 10 men have just died on hunger strike asserting their refusal, among other things, to do prison work, this move arouses suspicion, but not for long. Marley's fellow prisoners are equally contemptuous of him ingratiating himself with the 'screws', but his strength is that he can take derision, soak it up like a mortified Gandhi and stick to his plan. This makes him an unusual hero. But this is the IRA, and self effacement and martyrdom have their place where they have strategic value.

We all know how it worked out. The escape went a bit haywire, but succeeded. A warder was killed and others were wounded, and some of the escapers were captured fairly quickly.

What makes this a compelling story is the psychology of the men.

Marley develops a plan to map the prison by getting other prisoners to draw up details of what they see between the garden and the visiting area and the hospital, wherever. He wants to find a weakness and he will.

There is violence here, but even then the point is not always to win a fight but to create a problem just by having it.

The prison governor thinks that for the sake of peace it is better to separate loyalist and republican prisoners. The actual result is more republicans coming together and being more free to plot their escape.

This is all familiar stuff in the history of the IRA, how they cynically made themselves more amenable to the screws in order to manipulate them.

Far from being propaganda for the IRA, this story comes across as a warning never to trust them. Unionists should like that aspect of it.

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A poster advertising the film

Gordon Close is just such a hard-headed sceptic. His brother was killed by the IRA. He hates them. It will be difficult for Marley to endear himself to him, especially after the IRA tries to kill him.

Marley is appalled, not that the man he works with might have been killed, but that his plan is hampered. "How am I supposed to get him to trust me if we're trying to blow his brains out?"

When he promises Close that there will be no further attacks on him, Close is furious and beats him about his cell. Marley doesn't lift a fist or knee in his defence. Then Close tries to pass on the same reassurance to his wife and get her to come home. She has left because he insists in staying in his job. She scoffs at the promise, as much as he had done himself.

So Marley is a bit of a worm, an Iago type who can take a thrashing and never really dishes it out unless it suits the plan. He is even willing to agree that the hunger strikers were fools, if that wins more confidence from Close. He is not an off-the-shelf macho hoodlum who solves problems with his fists or a gun.

And this film is not really pro-IRA. Strong arguments against the IRA are made forcefully in the dialogue.

There is the wife of a dead hunger striker who thinks the whole sacrifice was pointless.

There is Close himself, who says he has seen rapists and muggers in the prison and the big difference between them and the IRA men is that they often regretted what they had done.

This is a dramatisation of the resilience and implacability of the IRA and of the coherence of the organisation, but it makes no moral judgment of the men. It doesn't seek to persuade you that they were right, but it does make you marvel at their devious intelligence and their tenacity.

In the end, as Close puts it, the warders and the prisoners "are all stuck in the same place, going nowhere".

Belfast Telegraph

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