“Maze” is a terrific little movie; it really is. Named after its setting, a prison in Northern Ireland considered to be all but escape-proof, it’s a throwback to the days when character-driven genre dramas that mixed excitement and emotional connection could still command an audience.
But in today’s world, where successful independent features take either the horror or the high school route, “Maze” is the kind of film moviegoers may not feel compelled to go to anymore. Which is a shame.
Even its distributor, the small but adventurous Lightyear Entertainment, seems be concerned about box office, going to the trouble of subtitling the film out of worry that the mild Irish accents might be hard to follow. (They’re not.)
Lightyear’s passion for the film is understandable, because “Maze” has several elements that smartly combine to insure that what happens on the screen is of potentially wide interest.
At its core, “Maze” is a classic based-on-fact prison break movie. Though it’s set in 1983, it’s so satisfyingly old-school (watch for how inmates clandestinely pass messages hand to hand) it could have come from Warner Bros.’ 1930s slate.
Directed with a sense of crisp purpose by Ireland’s Stephen Burke, “Maze’s” behind-the-scenes look at post-war Europe’s largest mass break-out benefits first of all from the political overlay that is the core of its narrative.
Maze, sometimes known as Long Kesh and located outside Belfast, was specifically constructed to hold prisoners during the brutal three-decades-long conflict called the Troubles.
These inmates included both Loyalist Protestants who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom and Catholic members of the Irish Republican Army who wanted to join the Republic of Ireland.
It was the IRA members who caused the British the most difficulty, insisting on being treated as political prisoners, not criminals, and, as “Maze” begins, having just come off a pair of related actions.
These would be the “dirty protest,” which involved not showering, using a lavatory or cutting hair, and a hunger strike in which 10 IRA members fasted to their deaths.
Introduced cutting his hair as a sign that those actions are over is Larry Marley, a based-on-reality IRA member who’s been in prison for a decade and is played with a compelling but low-key intensity by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor.
Feeling purposeless and at loose ends after the failed hunger strike, Marley is determined to do something in tribute to those who died and to stick a finger in the eye of the British at the same time. The idea of a major prison break is just the ticket.
Needing to get a sense of the contours of Maze, Marley measures distances in his mind everywhere he goes. Realizing he will have to get outside his cell block to do this effectively, he does something IRA prisoners have never done, which is volunteer for menial work like mopping floors.
This ploy will also involve befriending Gordon Close (Barry Ward), one of the prison warders in charge of his block by using blarney on the order of a joking “my wife tells me I’m a dab hand with a mop.”
This leads to the other aspect that makes “Maze” so involving, and that is the psychological dynamic between these characters.
For though the relationship between the guard (unlike Marley, a composite) and the prisoner begins in subterfuge on Marley’s part and undisguised hostility on Close’s, it ends up going in interesting directions.
Both men, as it turns out, have wives and children on the outside and difficulties with them that are rooted in the seemingly endless conflict.
There’s no real friendship on tap here — “Maze” is too realistic about the complexities of the situation for that — but the interactions between these two men are surprisingly emotional. And even the brief realization of commonality is a crack in the wall that kept the Troubles alive for so long.
When you add in the tip-top tension created by the legendary break itself, not to mention the verisimilitude of shooting in a recently decommissioned prison, you end up with a small film with an impressive impact. Those who take a chance on “Maze” will not be disappointed.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Monica, Santa Monica; Playhouse, Pasadena; Town Center, Encino