Maurice review – Merchant Ivory’s EM Forster adaptation richer than ever
Thu 26 Jul 2018
M Forster’s novel Maurice, unpublished in his own lifetime, often gets treated as an outlier in his work, and maybe the superlative 1987 film version, starring Hugh Grant and James Wilby, was first thought of as an outlier in the prestigious Merchant Ivory canon. This film was clearly capitalising on the 80s Varsity chic of Chariots of Fire and the TV Brideshead Revisited, but it is darker, less picturesque, more claustrophobically and even tragically male (though Judy Parfitt and Helena Bonham Carter do what they can with cameo roles). Now, Maurice, produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by James Ivory, who collaborated with Kit Hesketh-Harvey on the screenplay, is being rereleased as part of the Flare strand, showcasing LGBT-themed films, at London’s BFI Southbank and in cinemas nationwide.
Its fascination and power are even more intense 30 years on. Maurice is a revelation. It tells us much more about a certain kind of unformulated English discontent, suppressed hysteria and the idealised longing for beauty in the aftermath of the Oscar Wilde trial. Britain’s educated classes may be encouraged at the age of 19 or 20 to study classics and make a poignantly brief acquaintance with the ancient Greeks and their idea of love. But then they were required to endure decades of conformism and dreary work in – as here – stockbroking or a mediocre political career. It is not simply gay sex that is rejected, but sexual pleasure itself.
Hugh Grant and James Wilby give fine and intelligent performances as Clive Durham and Maurice Hall, two exquisitely beautiful young men up at Cambridge in the years before the first world war. Maurice is reading Classics, and there is an excruciating scene in which, as he is construing Plato, he is curtly told by his supervisor, Dean Cornwallis (Barry Foster), to “omit the unspeakable vice of the Greeks”. Clive and Maurice fall first in love and secondly into a kind of mutual panic, seeking to suppress or disavow what has happened between them. Maurice is sent down for showing disrespect to the dons (having clearly projected his rebellious sexuality into this kind of unfocused truculence) and becomes a middling nobody in the City; Clive takes his degree and begins to make a complacent career in parliament. Deeply scared by a Cambridge contemporary being convicted for indecency like Oscar Wilde, they retreat further into lonely respectability. Both men embrace an absurd sort of maturity by growing Edwardian moustaches; Clive’s makes him look eerily like a young Harold Macmillan. They lapse into parallel lives of colourless dullness and emotionally stagnant wretchedness.
Clive marries Anne (Phoebe Nicholls), a timid innocent who is unaware of being a second choice, and who nervously averts her eyes from her own husband’s naked body as he approaches the marriage bed. Clive himself is subject to the neurotic symptom of fainting. And Maurice, to suppress his own desires, submits to the ministrations of an American hypnotherapist – a bizarrely gripping scene featuring Ben Kingsley – who tells him: “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.” But Maurice is finally to find a kind of sensual and emotional release in his passion for a gamekeeper, Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves) – so anticipating Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley.
There is a great sequence towards the end of the movie, where an angry and resentful Scudder confronts Maurice in London, apparently intent on blackmailing him, and yet the emotional direction of the scene turns on a sixpence, as it becomes clear that the blackmail plan is just Alec’s way of brazening out his hurt feelings. And then, sensationally, the two men happen to run into Mr Ducie (Simon Callow), the bizarrely pompous schoolmaster we saw at the very beginning of the film, whose toe-curlingly misjudged lecture on the birds and the bees so traumatised Maurice as a boy. Symbolically, Maurice is to deny knowing Ducie, and even calls himself “Scudder”, a new choice of identity.
Thirty years after Maurice, the remarkable James Ivory would adapt André Aciman’s novel Call Me By Your Name for Luca Guadagnino – a similar movie, though Maurice differs in that it is about a love affair between two social equals who are the same age. Perhaps that is partly why there is no future in it, and why Maurice is to find love with Scudder. (Oliver and Elio in Call Me By Your Name are an older and a younger, an Achilles and Patroclus pairing). Maurice is a candid, lucid, passionate film.