“England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”
I’m not usually a fan of period pieces, especially those set in Victorian or Edwardian England. Somehow, they tend to be stuffy, grandiloquent affairs that warrant a great big yawn — and they turn me off. James Ivory’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, however, is an exception.
I caught a 30th anniversary screening, and something crucial struck me: Ivory and cowriter Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s screenplay is downright daring even for the time when Maurice came out (no pun intended). A sort of forbidden romance that one character sees as the love of his life while the other tosses it aside as the folly of youth, I was moved by the frank depiction of gay love as a tender yet treacherous battlefield, no different than any other love — measured by intensity, law, or social construct. For this, Maurice stands way ahead of its time, even today.
Maurice Hall (James Wilby) is essentially Oscar Wilde at Cambridge circa 1910. He makes a move on social climbing classmate Clive Durham (Hugh Grant), who surprisingly welcomes his advances. They can only go so far, though: Clive doesn’t want to jeopradize his social standing, so the two maintain a platonic relationship. This is the key to Maurice, and the thing that makes it monumental: this is a film that attacks appearances.
Time goes by, shit happens, and Maurice ends up with Clive’s gutter cleaner, Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves, who looks like a plebeian Paul Young). This upsets Clive and sends Maurice to therapy. In the end, Maurice makes a choice that so many of us gays have: to be gay, or not to be.
Maurice operates on a strange platitude, one that isn’t clear at first. Maurice is vulnerable, almost stupid. Clive is chilly, reserved, and completely repressed. Both skirt around their issue. I found myself rooting for and actually admiring Maurice, who stays true to himself — class, law, and sexuality be damned. That last look on Clive’s face in the final scene is devastating…for him.
With Denholm Elliott, Simon Callow, Billie Whitelaw, Barry Foster, Judy Parfitt, Phoebe Nicholls, Ben Kingsley, Patrick Godfrey, Mark Tandy, Kitty Aldridge, Helena Michell, Catherine Rabett, Peter Eyre, Helena Bonham Carter
Production: Merchant Ivory Productions, Film Four International
Distribution: Cinecom Pictures (USA), Enterprise Pictures Limited (UK), Concorde Film (Netherlands), Cohen Media Group (USA)
(Gene Siskel Film Center) B