Maurice, Restored and Re-released (Web Exclusive)
by Rodney F. Hill
Produced by Ismael Merchant; directed by James Ivory; based upon the novel by E. M Forster; screenplay by Kit Hesketh-Harvey and James Ivory; cinematography by Pierre Lhomme; production design by Brian Ackland-Snow; edited by Katherine Wenning; music by Richard Robbins; costume design by John Bright and Jenny Beavan; starring James Wilby, Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves, Denholm Elliott, Simon Callow, Billie Whitelaw, Barry Foster. Color, 140 min. A Cohen Media Group Rerelease.
In an age when the range of human sexuality is, thankfully, portrayed somewhat freely and nonjudgmentally in films and other popular media, it is important to recall how recent a phenomenon such openness is. Up until the mid- to late 1980s, typical depictions of male homosexuality in films tended either to be played for laughs—consider the long line of “pansies” portrayed by Franklin Pangborn, Edward Everett Horton, et al., in comedies from Hollywood’s Golden Age—or to suggest seediness, shame, and moral decay, à la William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) and The Boys in the Band (1970). Even the most progressive films of the classical period cast gay characters in a tragic light or as figures of scandal, as in Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent (1962). On the rare occasion when a mainstream film attempted a grown-up portrayal of a gay relationship, as with John Schlesinger’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971), the results were awkward at best.
All that changed with the 1987 release of Ismael Merchant and James Ivory’s splendid adaptation of E. M. Forster’s 1914 novel, Maurice (published posthumously in 1971)—a lush, lavish period drama that offers one of the most poignant gay love stories ever committed to film, not to mention a respectable dose of (still rare) male nudity. Cohen Media Group has mounted a thirtieth anniversary rerelease of Maurice (pronounced “Morris”), in a new 4K digital restoration from the original camera negative, approved by director James Ivory. Far from being simply an important historical landmark, Maurice is as vibrant, as moving, and as sensual today as ever, sparkling with the electrical on-screen chemistry of its three male romantic leads.
Set in the world of the British upper crust just prior to World War I, Maurice centers on the friendship of two university students, Maurice and Clive (James Wilby and Hugh Grant, joint recipients of the award for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival), who fall in love at Cambridge and must struggle with the fact that their relationship is strictly forbidden (indeed punishable by law). Although initially horrified at Clive’s professed affections, Maurice soon becomes the more passionate and romantically devoted of the two, as Clive begins to feel that their love is untenable in the long term. Clive’s determination to lead a strictly heterosexual life is cemented when a well-connected school acquaintance is prosecuted for making sexual advances to a soldier in an alleyway; thus Clive insists that he and Maurice must keep their friendship at a platonic level, for fear of losing their positions, their livelihoods, and their freedom.
Distraught at first, Maurice soon finds himself the object of desire of Clive’s gamekeeper, Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves), who boldly climbs through Maurice’s bedroom window late one evening and ends up spending the entire night with him. Their attraction, intense and immediate, comes across quite viscerally yet tenderly on screen, with the perfect blend of physicality and emotion. Despite the dual taboos of their sexuality and their class differences, eventually the two men determine to make a life together, vowing never to be parted.
Filmed on location, largely at King’s College, Maurice exemplifies the rich visual splendor that marks all of Merchant-Ivory’s productions. Lest we damn the film with faint praise, however, we should note that its cinematic style is employed, often in quite subtle ways, to achieve emotional effects that go well beyond the “ah” factor of the gorgeous landscapes, country estates, and hallowed halls of Cambridge. For instance, the tight, intimate framings of the dormitory scenes between Maurice and Clive speak volumes about their burgeoning attraction to each other, amplified by the actors’ deceptively natural, comfortable performance styles.
Such suppleness contrasts starkly with the regimented pageantry of the British social order, as seen in the stodginess of the formal dining hall scene and in all of the interactions between the students and their Dean (played by the marvelous Barry Foster, of Frenzy fame), who warns them against “the unspeakable vice of the Greeks.” Other notable supporting actors include Billie Whitelaw (also of Frenzy) as Maurice’s mother; Denholm Elliott as Maurice’s family physician; and Ben Kingsley as the hypnotherapist to whom he refers Maurice for a “cure.” (It is Kingsley’s relatively minor character who intones what may be regarded as the film’s core “commentary,” distilled into a single line: “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”) An early scene with Simon Callow, as a priggish schoolmaster who offers the adolescent Maurice an awkwardly illustrated lesson on the facts of life, sets up a lighthearted tone that informs much of the film, in contrast to its more serious themes.
Because E. M. Forster considered those concerns—over the struggles of young men forced to choose between an honest sexual life and a repressive society that demands conformity—too controversial for British mores, he withheld the novel from publication during his lifetime, circulating it only among friends, in various stages of revision. Of all of Merchant and Ivory’s four adaptations from Forster, Maurice is perhaps the most faithful and complete, with only one notable addition: the episode involving Risley (Mark Tandy), the school chum of Clive and Maurice who is sent to prison for his attempted illicit encounter with a guardsman.
Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of Maurice—and the quality that makes it as relevant today as during its original release—is that it is not a “message” film about “gay issues,” as were so many of the gay-themed films to follow shortly afterward (Longtime Companion  and Philadelphia  come to mind). Rather, it is a fully drawn, classical love story, a romance set against great odds, in which the lovers just happen to be of the same sex. In that respect, it anticipates the astonishing Moonlight (2016) by some three decades. In any case, Maurice remains not only a classic of gay cinema, but also a classic on its own terms.
Rodney F. Hill is Assistant Professor of Film Studies in the Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University.
Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 3