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Inmate maps out route to freedom

Barry Ward and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor in “Maze.”

By Michael Gray

The Maze prison in Northern Ireland, in rural County Down, is infamous as the location of the H-Blocks blanket protest, and the fatal hunger strikes by Republican prisoners that followed in 1980 and 1981. The hunger strikes won for the prisoners the Pyrrhic victory of Special Category Status that they had previously enjoyed until the mid-1970s, but at the cost of 10 men dead of starvation, leaving nationalist morale in disarray at this horrendous loss of life.

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Seeking to boost support for the Republican movement in the wake of this cataclysm, a group of prisoners soon hatched a plot to engineer a mass escape from the Maze, a facility the British government of the time regarded as Europe's highest-security prison.

This daring prison break is the subject of “Maze,” a true-life prison thriller written and directed by Stephen Burke. The film follows the scheme from its inception in the wake of the hunger strikes, masterminded by former Blanket Man Larry Marley, to its conclusion in September 1983, when 38 Republican prisoners made a break for the exit in a commandeered bread van.

Marley's burgeoning escape plan faced obstacles other than high walls and barbed-wire fences. His OC on the block, Oscar (Martin McCann), gets orders from higher up, on the outside, that the plan should be abandoned because of the risk of failure. Marley, played by “Love/Hate” star Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, is determined to go ahead regardless. He is held in high regard by his comrades for his commitment to the blanket protest, but squanders this respect when he volunteers for orderly duty in his cell block - cooperation with the enemy is deemed unforgivable.

But there is method to his toadying, as he gradually earns the trust of prison staff to gain access to sensitive areas of the prison where he can glean intel regarding pass codes, warder timetables, and security weak spots. His particular target for quasi-friendship is Gordon Close (Barry Ward), a gruff unionist who despises the IRA and all they represent. An attempt on Gordon's life while he is off-duty, out shopping with his family, so terrifies his wife that she absconds permanently to London with their daughter, leaving the prison warder alone and isolated in his heavily-fortified Belfast home. And vulnerable too, at work, to the friendly overtures of the wily Marley, who slowly insinuates himself into Gordon's confidence. Over countless cups of tea with Gordon, and numerous floor swabbing details, Marley eventually gathers enough knowledge to map out a cunning escape route.

A scene from “Maze.”

Patience is hardly in short supply for prison inmates serving long sentences, but film audiences will need some too as Marley's stealthy chess match with authority very gradually bears fruit. Much of the drama in prison escape films lies in the classic exit via a tunnel, with the attendant risks of discovery and betrayal while the digging is underway. And the prisoners at the Maze did eventually undertake a subterranean dig, getting to within 80 feet of the perimeter fence in 1997, a year before the Good Friday Agreement sanctioned an easier early departure via the front gate. The tunnel was discovered by prison staff before it could be completed.

Marley's plan evolves entirely above ground, in the grim cells and corridors of the jail, before finally culminating in a bid for freedom in stolen staff uniforms, toting smuggled pistols and knives, in a hijacked van. The film wisely rolls credits at the point of exit, as the sloppy aftermath of the mass escape negates in real life the crafty work done before to get that far.

Shot in 2017 on a lean budget of less than $2 million, the film has an authentic feel from the claustrophobic camerawork of David Grennan, and, significantly, the involvement, as co-producer, of Belfast filmmaker Brendan Byrne, who made the BBC documentary “Breakout” about the same escape, and “66 Days,” the highly-regarded account of Bobby Sands's hunger strike in the prison three years earlier. Predictably, the “Maze” film polarized opinion in the North of Ireland, unionists seeing it as a glorification of paramilitary skullduggery, and nationalists seeing it as a factual account of a real-life event. New York audiences will have the opportunity to pass verdict on “Maze” this week at Village Cinema East in New York City, where the film opens for a week on Friday, with a special appearance by director Stephen Burke and star Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, at the 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Friday shows.

The writer and director will also be present for Q & A at a New York City premiere screening the night before, at 7 p.m. at Scandinavia House, 58 Park Ave.