Maurice

maurice-rev Maurice  (1987)    Cinecom Pictures/Drama    RT: 140 minutes    Rated R (thematic elements, graphic nudity, brief strong language)    Director: James Ivory    Screenplay: Kit Hesketh-Harvey    Music: Richard Robbins    Cinematography: Pierre Lhomme    Release date: September 18, 1987 (US)/July 14, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: James Wilby, Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves, 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.    

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 When you hear the term “Hammer Film”, you expect a British-made Gothic horror film set in the 19th century- e.g. Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula. When somebody says “Cannon film”, you think of a B-movie from the 80s starring Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson or Michael Dudikoff. Likewise, when you see “A Merchant Ivory Production” above the title, you know it will probably be a period drama set in Edwardian England- e.g. A Room with a View, Howards End. These movies tend to move slowly and deal with the upper classes. That’s an apt albeit simplistic description of Maurice, an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel. It was written in 1914 but not published until after the author’s death in 1970. Why so long? It would have been too controversial for its time. Homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967. Even then, there were tough restrictions- i.e. the age of consent was 21 as opposed to 16 for heterosexual acts.

 mauriceBut I’m getting a tad off-base here. Maurice, which has just been rereleased in a beautifully restored new print for its 30th anniversary, is a story of gay love set in the early part of the 20th century. From an early age, it’s been ingrained in Maurice Hall’s mind that the only love acceptable in God’s eyes is that between a man and a woman. It’s an unforgivable sin for a man to lie with another man. This is why Maurice (Wilby, Howards End) has such a difficult time dealing with his true feelings for his close friend Clive Durham (Grant, Four Weddings and a Funeral). They first meet at Cambridge University in 1909 through a mutual friend. They become close rather quickly and eventually Clive confesses his love to Maurice. Initially, he rejects Clive but soon realizes he loves him too. They embark on a platonic relationship that ends when one of their former classmates has his life, career and reputation ruined after being arrested for homosexuality.

 Clive, not wanting to risk his promising future as a lawyer, marries a naïve rich girl (Nicholls, The Elephant Man) and settles into a new life of rural domesticity. He also has his position as a member of the upper class to think of. Maurice tries to suppress his unnatural urges, even turning to hypnosis for a cure. He remains friend with Clive and visits him often at his estate where he first meets the rough-hewn gamekeeper Alec Scudder (Graves, Where Angels Fear to Tread) whose sexual preference is the same as Maurice’s. It leads to a relationship best described in modern vernacular, “it’s complicated”.

 While Maurice is a handsomely mounted production, I have a problem with the Maurice-Scudder part of the story. Would such a relationship even exist in that era? I’m not talking about the gay thing; I’m referring to class. The two men are from completely different social classes. What would they possibly have in common (aside from the obvious, of course)? What could they possibly have to talk about? How long could their relationship last until one of them realizes they’re too different from one another? Realistically, they have no future together. I can only surmise that Scudder is a rebound relationship for Maurice. Besides, it’s not like he has a lot of options. It’s not like he can go to a gay bar and meet somebody new. He runs the risk of severe punishment and social exile if he reveals his true sexual nature to the wrong person. So maybe in a way their relationship does make sense. Wow, it really is complicated!

 Like all Merchant Ivory films, Maurice moves at a languid pace. It’ll drive most mainstream moviegoers nuts from boredom. I would have been bored to tears if I saw it when it first came out in ’87 even though that was the year I started expanding my film interests beyond Hollywood crap movies and silly B-movies. It’s slow but gorgeous. Scene after scene is perfectly rendered. A lazy mid-day rowboat ride on the river. A casual cricket game between masters and servants. The stately mansions and lush green English countryside. The sets and costumes add to its high authenticity factor. The acting is also very good. Maurice has a strong supporting cast that includes Denholm Elliott (Raiders of the Lost Ark) as Maurice’s family physician, Ben Kingsley (Gandhi) as the doctor of hypnosis and Billie Whitelaw (The Omen) as Maurice’s mum. The two leads, Wilby and Grant (who looks so young here), have great chemistry. The score by Richard Robbins is simply beautiful.

 Maurice is a classy production. It’s passionate yet restrained and dignified. Director James Ivory has a keen eye for period as well as character detail. He shows us all the events that shape Maurice as the person he becomes. It’s an exquisite albeit imperfect film. Still, Maurice is a landmark gay film and still holds the same power it did thirty years ago. It’s interesting to look at it now and think about how much things have changed in the century since this film took place. Or how much they haven’t. 

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