Pride Month: Maurice (1987)
Producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory were hit their stride with A Room with a View, a picture they would follow-up with an adaptation of another E.M. Forster novel, Maurice. The story about two men who are in love while attending Cambridge University in Edwardian England, a time when homosexuality was illegal, outing brought about criminal charges and dealt irreparable damage to people's lives and reputations.
What we now refer to as costume dramas, period pieces or classic adaptations, was for the longest time called a “Merchant Ivory” picture. The reason being that James Ivory and his collaborating producer Ismail Merchant set the standard for superlatively executed Edwardian dramas and literary adaptations of E.M. Forster and Henry James. They unemphatically achieved stately sumptuousness with Howard’s End, The Remains of the Day, and the aforementioned A Room with a View; gold standards in this informal genre that have rarely been surpassed.
Maurice Hall, played by the criminally undervalued James Wilby and Clive Durham (Hugh Grant) have a modest love affair. Clive, intimidated by the oppressiveness of their loving but sexless relationship is abandoned by Clive, while Maurice is left knowing that he can't change the way he is. At one point Clive Remarks “We’ve got to change, you and I” to which Maurice says “can a leopard change his spots?”.
Maurice struggles with his sexuality around the strenuous Edwardian atmosphere; however, his fortunes change when he finds love from an unexpected young man named Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves). This is one of Merchant Ivory’s more psychologically fraught films, taking place in a constricting environment so virulently opposed to homosexuality that the word “gay” isn’t even a part of the vernacular, so much so that at one point our forlorn protagonist refers to himself as “an unspeakable Oscar Wilde sort.”
There are two sides to Maurice; tragedy, and fortune. The conflict is invertedly original in that our protagonist's struggle doesn’t come from him identifying, or “choosing” to be gay - the point is that it's not a choice, he knows he’s gay, but he’s pit against a society that deems homosexuality as criminal. It’s a dispute that supersedes the social or professional effects of being outed (but not to minimize said obstacle), and Maurice reflects the societal intolerance in the story of one individual.
As melancholic as the film can be it’s not a purely arduous journey; there’s light at the end of the tunnel as the strained and emotionally bruised protagonist makes the epic journey of this film a sigh of relief. Clive’s rejection of Maurice’s love is informed by the Edwardian society, as well as a matter of classism in that he’s afraid to disrupt his gentry, a presence of emotional conflict.
What floored me upon seeing Maurice for the first time a few years ago was its honesty and frankness. A film about homosexuality that wasn’t relegated to subtext, the content was straightforward and entirely unapologetic, whose characters aren’t destined to tragedy or a doomed fate. Our stateside perception of queer cinema is often perceived as a countercultural type of filmmaking in the mold of John Waters, Kenneth Anger, or the earlier work of Todd Haynes, whereas James Ivory’s direction is decidedly lavish, rife with period detail, decor and technical elegance. Maurice is made with conviction and subtle power.
The film has had an interestingly peaceful life since its release in 1987, seemingly flying under the radar of controversy; the film received a five-minute standing ovation after its debut at the Venice Film Festival, and ran for ten years in Paris. Maurice is a beautiful film that doesn’t focus entirely on the suffering of its subjects but the possibility of finding love against the pitfall of adversity, with a immaculate score by recurring Merchant Ivory composer Richard Robbins.
It feels like Maurice was too-good-too-soon, without the clout of movies like Brokeback Mountain, Milk, or Philadelphia. With Coen Media Group acquiring Merchant Ivory's Thirty-plus titles Maurice has been screened with a new 4K restoration; hopefully, a renaissance of the film will come soon.