By Anthony Uzarowski.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in the UK. There could be no better time to revisit one of the country’s greatest cinematic gay love stories, filmed thirty years ago, and now returning to the screens in all its digitally restored glory.
Based on a novel by E. M. Forster (written in 1914 but only published posthumously in 1971), Maurice is set in Edwardian England, and yet its film adaptation is as much an act of rebellion against the social realities of the Thatcherite 1980s, as it is a reflection of the stifling conventions of the early twentieth century. Producer Ismail Merchant and his partner, both in life and in art, director James Ivory, set out to film the novel fresh on the heels of their highly acclaimed adaptation of another Forster work, A Room with a View. This was a bold move on their part, and one we can only fully appreciate today, three decades later. Although Maurice is a nearly perfect movie, it had to pay the price for its exploration of daring themes, at a time when discussions of homosexual love and fulfilment were, at best, unpopular. This was 1987, the height of the AIDS crisis, with conservative governments in power on both sides of the Atlantic. Justice and equality for the LGBT community was certainly not part of their agendas. The price the film had to pay was obscurity. Despite some rave reviews, particularly in continental Europe, and a string of awards at the Venice Film Festival, the film went virtually unnoticed by the main stream in the UK and the US. As remarked by Ben Kingsley’s hypnotist/conversion therapist in the film, “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”
The strength and the beauty of Maurice lie in its subtlety: the stolen moments, chance meetings, fleeting glances, the briefest of kisses. There is nothing ostentatious about the film, and yet it is drenched with desire, the characters’ yearnings clearly mapped out, the film’s message confidently stamped at the heart of each scene. All this is framed within Pierre Lhomme’s stunning cinematography, with the picturesque landscapes of the English countryside, steeped in mist and rain, symbolically concealing the double life of the characters.
We first meet Maurice as a boy of twelve, on the verge of adolescence, already questioning the traditional masculine role he’s been assigned by the society he lives in. It is clear that he knows no name for the feelings he is experiencing; they are beyond anything he is likely to learn from members of his family, teachers at his school or indeed his peers. When at nineteen he enters Cambridge University (the adult Maurice is portrayed brilliantly by James Wilby), his entire perception is shaken to the core, particularly after he meets a fellow student, Clive Durham (Hugh Grant). Their attraction is immediate, and yet both men are reluctant to admit it either to themselves or to each other. The scene of their first erotic embrace is pure cinematic gold. Ivory handles the scene with great sensitivity, making it clear to the viewer that this is the first time either of the characters has experienced physical intimacy. Maurice is initially ambushed by the intensity of his feelings, experiencing guilt and wrestling with the religious teachings of his upbringing. Although Clive appears liberated from conventions, he eventually supresses his desire, fearing social exclusion and persecution. Maurice, on the other hand, embarks on a journey of self-discovery, which takes him to some dark corners, including an attempt at conversion therapy. What is striking and unprecedented about Maurice is the film’s second half: Maurice’s rejection of social norms, including not only attitudes to homosexuality, but also the class divide. Although rejected by Clive, Maurice eventually embraces his sexuality, and is able to find true happiness with an earthy gamekeeper, Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves). What the film brilliantly illustrates is the double risk Maurice is taking. When Clive finds out about Maurice’s decision to begin a new life with Scudder, he is unsure whether he ought to be more shocked by the fact that a man would dare to commit himself to a fully-fledged relationship with another man, or that an upper class gentleman is even contemplating a relationship with someone from a working class background.
Set at the beginning of the last century, the film portrays Maurice’s personal journey and his finding love with implications of a hopeful future, not only for him, but for all homosexuals. It is this “happy ending” which set both the novel and its film adaptation apart from other stories of gay love which came before. When writing the novel in 1913, Forster couldn’t have known that it would take more than half a century before acts of same-sex love would stop being a criminal offence in the UK, and exactly a hundred years before members of the same sex would be allowed to marry.
It is this reviewer’s sincere hope that this restoration and re-release affords Maurice a new chance to shine, and that the new generation will embrace it in a way that its original audience didn’t. While gaining a cult status among the gay community, the film never got the recognition that the two recent films of a similar nature did: I am of course referring here to Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015) and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016), both also featuring hopeful endings.
While the social landscape has changed dramatically since both the time Maurice is set in, and the year of the film’s initial release, today’s uncertain political situation, and the violence LGBT+ communities are still facing in many regions of the world, certainly make it that much more urgent that we admit Maurice to the cannon of timeless classics, where it belongs, as well as declaring it a milestone in the history of cinematic representation of homosexuality.
Anthony Uzarowski is a Film Studies MA graduate from University College London, currently perusing his doctoral research at Queen Mary University of London. His first book (co-authored with Kendra Bean) is Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press, 2017). His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Gay Times, Queerty, and Film International. His main research interests are classical Hollywood and star studies in relation to the representation of women in film and queer studies.