Saturday, April 25, 2020

Coming Out with Maurice

Boy meets boy in a world where their kind of love was an impossibility. This is E.M. Forster’s Maurice (1987).

Having already produced a critically acclaimed film version of Forster’s A Room with a View in 1985, producer Ismael Merchant and director James Ivory took the gamble of mounting Forster’s groundbreaking and explicitly homosexual love story with honesty and heart, in exquisite period detail.

As a gay man who came out in the 1980s, long before it was fashionable or even safe to do so (and as the AIDS crisis pushed an entire generation out of the closet to fight for their civil rights), Maurice was one of the first LGBT films I ever saw, and it remains one of my all-time favorites. I was dazzled by its romantic opulence, emotional honesty and intelligent treatment of previously verboten subject matter.

Hugh Grant as Clive Durham

The three British actors who form the forbidden love triangle in Maurice took the chance of being stereotyped forever and ruining their chances at stardom by playing gay characters. (A few years before in the USA, up and coming leading man Harry Hamlin had almost destroyed his burgeoning career by playing a homosexual in a controversial film called Making Love.)

James Wilby as Maurice Hall

Here you’ll see a young and handsome Hugh Grant, years before he leapt to fame in Four Weddings and a Funeral. The only member of the Maurice ensemble to make it to A-List megastardom, the charming Grant has since carved an indelible niche as a leading man in iconic light romantic comedies like Notting Hill and Love Actually. (But throughout his meteoric rise to fame in the 1990s, Grant never talked much about Maurice!)

Rupert Graves has continued to work steadily since he bared his soul (and much more than that!) in both Room with a View and Maurice, in dozens of films and TV series including V for Vendetta, the ABC series The Family and The White Queen for BBC.

Rupert Graves as Alec Scudder

In the film’s title role is the stalwart James Wilby, always at home in period drawing room settings in films including A Handful of Dust, Gosford Park and Merchant Ivory’s Howard's End. Wilby’s veneer of conservative Britishness makes him the perfect choice to play the role of a deeply conflicted man who makes the bold and daring, unexpected life choice of surrendering to his natural inclinations.

The film opens at Cambridge in 1909, where suburban upper middle class youth Maurice Hall (Wilby) meets and falls in love with Clive Durham (Grant), the scion of an aristocratic family and young master of Pendersleigh Park (think Downton Abbey).

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay touches upon the emotional, intellectual and socioeconomic aspects of E.M. Forster’s story. The richness of their liberal arts education at Cambridge is illustrated by readings from Plato’s Symposium on platonic male love (the professor warns his students to “omit the reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks”) and the society’s caste and class system where social roles are clearly delineated.

Mark Tandy as Viscount Risley

At Cambridge Maurice is drawn to Risley (Mark Tandy), a supercilious and cerebral upperclassman who has a “dangerous” interest in him. Through his attraction to Risley, Maurice meets the sweet and boyish Clive, and the pair immediately become intimate friends and soul mates.

At first it is Clive who is the iconoclast and sophisticate, determined to turn his back on the rigidly repressive stuffiness of Edwardian society—but eventually he succumbs to peer pressure and fulfills the role that society has laid out for him. Maurice is the uneducated, naive dolt who follows all the rules without question until his animal instincts lead him in the direction of freedom.

Clive resists Maurice's advances

The story is rife with reversals. Though it is Clive who first ardently proclaims his love, scandalizing Maurice, it is a newly lusty Maurice who pushes to consummate their relationship. But as the pair spoon and snuggle on a blanket during their romantic picnic, Clive fearfully recoils at Maurice’s physical advances.

Both characters grapple with their ideas of masculinity and respectability. When Maurice works as a London stockbroker, he dons a mustache that Clive finds “revolting,” yet for the second half of the picture (another reversal) it is Clive not Maurice who wears the mustache.

When Viscount Risley is arrested and “sent down” for dallying with a young soldier in a London pub as part of a sting operation — homosexuality is crime and major scandal — he is sentenced to 6 months hard labor but more importantly, by being branded a ‘twank’ (faggot), loses his reputation and his station in the social pecking order.

Distinctly middle class: Maurice's sister (Helena Michell) and mother (Billie Whitelaw)

Risley’s disgrace shakes Clive to the core and makes him determined to change, though Maurice wonders, “Can the leopard change his spots?” They both try. While Clive submits to a sexless marriage to the frigid Anne (Phoebe Nicholls), Maurice visits a hypnotist in the vain hopes that he can cure his condition ("I’m a degenerate of the Oscar Wilde sort”), to no avail.

Then Alec Scudder (Graves), the attractive but rough hewn under gamekeeper at Pendersleigh, makes a bold pass at Maurice, and the film erupts into the stuff of romance novels, culminating in rapturous male-male love scenes that might make Lady Chatterley herself start to blush. (Same sex love scenes may be commonplace today in mainstream entertainment, but the startling and unabashed full frontal male nudity of Maurice was still an uncommon sight in 1980s cinema.)

Caste and class system: The underkeeper and the gentleman

Maurice climaxes in a happy ending for Maurice and Alec (“Now we shant never be parted,” whispers Alec) and a resigned sadness for Clive who looks out the window longingly into his past, with wife Anne at his side.

The man that got away: Clive and Anne (Phoebe Nicholls)

The principals are ably supported by a cast that’s a virtual who’s who of accomplished British character actors, including Denholm Elliott, Ben Kingsley (sporting the oddest American accent you’ve ever heard) and Simon Callow (Bedrooms and Hallways). There’s also a tiny cameo by Helena Bonham Carter (if you blink, you’ll miss her).

The hip hypnotist: Ben Kingsley steals a scene

Billie Whitelaw, beloved to horror fans in films like The Omen and Night Watch, is delightfully dotty as Maurice’s dear mother, who witnesses an intimate moment between Maurice and Clive. The imperious Judy Parfitt (Wilde, Dolores Claiborne) is marvelous in her brief scenes as Clive’s terribly correct, upper-crust mother.

Maurice was something of a coming out statement for filmmakers and longtime life partners Ismael Merchant and James Ivory. (Merchant died in 2005; Ivory recently won a Best Screenplay Academy Award for his adaptation of Call Me By Your Name.) Though they never flaunted their 44-year collaboration and love affair (rarely ever speaking publicly about it at all, in fact), their shared love of the material is evident in their daring film treatment of E.M. Forster’s lost novel of same sex love in Edwardian England.

A labor of love: James Ivory and Ismael Merchant

Thanks to MovieRob for inviting me to participate in his Genre Guesstimation celebration of LGBTQ+ movies!