Review by Hayden Thorne
FROM MERCHANT IVORY PRODUCTIONS:
The traditional bildungsroman, or novel of education, ends with a marriage. E.M. Forster’s Maurice (1914), the second of his novels to be adapted by Merchant Ivory, takes on a subject that no major novel in the genre had ever addressed: the problem of coming of age as a homosexual in a restrictive society. First published in 1971, after Forster’s death, and long neglected by critics, it is only recently (and largely since the release of the film adaptation) that critics have come to set Maurice in its unique place among “Reader, I married him” narratives. Starring James Wilby (Maurice) and Hugh Grant (Clive) as two Cambridge undergraduates who fall in love, the film is set amidst the hypocritical homoerotic subculture of the English university in Forster’s time. In an environment in which any reference to ” the unspeakable vice of the Greeks” is omitted, and any overture toward a physical relationship between men might be punishable by law, Maurice and Clive struggle to come to terms with their own feelings toward each other and toward a repressive society.
The dichotomy of love – that of the idealized (intellectual/platonic) and the physical – is beautifully captured in Merchant and Ivory’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel, Maurice.
The film is made with a remarkably sharp eye for detail. England becomes a lush panorama that enriches every scene – the green, rolling countryside, the sprawling grandeur of Penge (or Pendersleigh in the movie), the grayness of rain-soaked London. We’re treated to the rich traditions that define university life in Cambridge, with young, aristocratic students sharply-dressed and immersed in their Greek translations or raucously celebrating athletic victories. The side characters are also used to paint a detailed picture of the mores of those times, both within social classes as well as between.
James Ivory takes his time in feeding us Maurice’s world, and the pace is luxuriously idle without turning dull. The cinematography is gorgeous, but it never distracts us from the characters and the story. One can say that Ivory turns England into a character in the movie, and in many ways, she is. She’s the hidden puppet-master who controls and dictates the tension within and between characters with her history, faith, and laws, and everyone’s powerless against her.
The acting is strong (though Kingsley seems a bit uncomfortable in his role as a hypnotist with an odd American accent) and effective in expressing the way turbulent yet natural emotions are confined by a rigid, intellectual veneer that very much defines the English upper-class. Unlike his counterpart in the novel, Clive is actually made into a more sympathetic character, with more believable reasons (compared to those in the novel) for choosing the path he takes. Hugh Grant, in one of his better performances, captures the fear, the despair, and the resignation that will shape Clive’s life for the rest of his days.
James Wilby fleshes out Maurice with great skill, moving from innocence to love to heartbreak to hope with a subtlety that’s alternately admirable and gut-wrenching. His portrayal certainly defies common – and bigoted – misconceptions of ineffectual softness or effeminacy as the defining character of a gay man – yes, even as a refined, upper-class gentleman. He’s athletic, well-built, and his scenes with Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves, who gives his role a cheeky roughness and vulnerability that makes one hope like heck that he’ll get his man in the end) show a nice blending of masculinity and deep emotion.
Unlike Clive, Alec is unpolished and unabashed in his expressions of love, constantly seeking Maurice’s companionship, which terrifies Maurice at first but eventually leads him to make a decision that’s both bittersweet and satisfying though largely improbable on another level. Given the social atmosphere of pre-World War I England, after all, class, no matter how much we wish it weren’t so, was a ruthless force in defining people’s behavior. Maurice, in fact, has shown himself to be a snob in several instances. The chances of a successful relationship with a social inferior are open to question. On the other hand, it’s the romance of a “what if?” situation that should be allowed the final word.
In a time and a place that were dominated by convention and the soul-deadening hypocrisy of the status quo, a slow and quiet stroll down the paths of improbability and romanticism sometimes make the best medicine.
The DVD contains several deleted scenes in a separate disc, one of them involving Maurice’s relationship with young Dickie Barry. It’s dismaying seeing those scenes taken out of the final theatrical release because Dickie’s presence marks another turning point in Maurice’s development. The boy inadvertently introduces Maurice to feelings of lust, which Maurice rather pathetically hopes to explore by dropping hints regarding his sleeping arrangements (just up the stairs from Dickie’s assigned room, thank you). Another deleted scene involves Lord Risley’s fate after his disgrace, which would have been an even more desperate call for Clive and Maurice to dive back into the closet. Yet another shows Clive (still a university student) showing signs of rebellion at home and dispensing his duties with a pretty cynical (even bitter) attitude. Here he gives his staff presents for Christmas, and had the scene been left in the movie’s final form, it would’ve given us our first glimpse of Alec Scudder.
Given the film’s length as it is, I can understand the need to excise those scenes, but it’s still unfortunate that we miss a few excellent – even significant – moments because of it. Thank the stars that they’re at least part of the final package for us to view again and again.