Maurice

We hear the sweeping sounds of strings as the scene opens upon a grey, windy day at the seashore. As the camera moves from the rushes to the expanse of the sky, we see some kites floating in the wind. A group of public-school children on a school excursion make their way through the sand, following their portly middle-aged teacher, Mr. Ducie. The schoolmaster turns away from the group and towards the sea and calls one of his pupils aside: the eleven-year-old Maurice Hall. The two walk by the waves of the sea, discussing mundane things about school and little Morrie’s home life, before Mr. Ducie finally gets to a subject of importance. Maurice, living with his widowed mother and two sisters, has no influential male figure in his life; hence, his teacher wants to have a little man-to-man talk with Maurice, “as if I were your father”.

Little Maurice, on the verge of puberty, hears for the first time, from his teacher, about the “sacred mystery of sex”. The wind howls in their ears and the waves roar behind them: Mr. Ducie, with the help of some rather explicit diagrams scratched onto the sand with his walking stick, explains the details about the act of procreation between man and woman. Maurice gapes at his teacher, bewildered. Mr. Ducie talks about serving God through one’s body, about loving and protecting a woman, about marriage and bearing children, things to which Maurice feels he will never relate.

Then, Mr. Ducie swears Maurice into secrecy: he must not mention their candid conversation to his mother or any lady or even discuss it with his schoolmates. As they walk back to join the rest of the school group, Maurice, in an impulse, says, “I think I shan’t marry,” a statement that seems innocuous and not unusual for a little boy, but will turn out to be telling of the trajectory of Maurice’s life. The good-natured schoolmaster laughs this off, and invites Maurice and his future wife to dine with Mr. Ducie and his wife “in ten years to the day”.

This is the opening sequence of Merchant Ivory’s 1987 film Maurice, an adaptation of E M Forster’s 1913 novel of the same name. The book was published only in 1971 after Forster had died because he believed he could not publish such a book in his lifetime due to its taboo subject: homosexual desire. The unfortunate time period in which the novel was written—homosexuality was a criminal offense in England until 1967—made the work unpublishable, despite the theme of the work being especially personal for Forster, who was a closeted gay man throughout his life. This touching story, in a way, served as a kind of posthumous “coming out” for one of the central figures of modern English Literature, and, needless to say, was extremely ill-received in 1971. Although most critics critiqued the novel was for its inferior writing rather than the theme, I can’t help but notice the palpable homophobia here, because Forster’s writing is impeccable in Maurice: sharp, ironic, and humorous, as well as touching, heart-wrenching and -warming. Little wonder then, that director James Ivory wanted it to be the next Forster book he adapted for the big screen.

Ismail Merchant, a film producer from an Indian Muslim business-owning family, and James Ivory, a film director, formed one of the most successful partnerships in independent cinema history and helmed the legendary Merchant Ivory Productions, that became famed for its inexpensive, realistic, and visually stunning period dramas. They rose to global fame with the first of their E M Forster novel film adaptations, the frothy and romantic A Room with a View, in 1985, and reached their zenith with the 1992 Howards End, a complex masterpiece based on another Forster novel, and 1993 The Remains of the Day, based on a period novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Maurice, released in 1987, is sadly one of their least recognized works (due in no small measure to the then ongoing AIDS crisis), but also one very close to both Merchant and Ivory who maintained a mostly private romantic relationship for decades until Ismail Merchant died in 2005.

Regardless of the fact that the book and the film have been under-appreciated, they are both far ahead of their time, and in my opinion, masterpieces. Both have their own artistic vision and are of equal artistic merit and worth. We often hear readers say, “the book is always better than the movie”, which then morphs into the view of literature being somehow superior to cinema objectively; this pains me as a lover of both. The two mediums are entirely different forms of art, and bring entirely different things to storytelling: books build an atmosphere through words and descriptions of sensations, mental and external, while films build a story through acting and visuals, exploring feelings through cinematography, lighting, and music. Both mediums have produced crass, thoughtless pieces and works of rare artistic mastery; both forms are inherently different and comparing and placing either on a higher or lower level seems ridiculous and unjust from the perspective of art and creativity.

Maurice is set in the 1910s, and looks at Maurice Hall’s turbulent emotional journey, mainly from his blossoming youth and college days in Cambridge, to his decently proper but dull life in the stock market, as a sexually repressed and internally disturbed and conflicted individual, but a picture of middle-class Edwardian gentility on the outside.

While in college, Maurice (played the English actor James Wilby) develops a friendship with the upper-class, intellectually superior, but shallow and pretentious Clive Durham (played by the beautiful Hugh Grant). Within the dark confines of lavish Cambridge corridors, their relationship blossoms into a passionate but extremely subdued romance. Maurice and Clive’s internalized homophobia—not unusual for their era—and Clive’s pompous and unrealistic ideals of a “pure” form of male love, influenced by his extensive reading and interpretations of Greek philosophers, prevents the two men from fully realizing their love. Clive doesn’t allow Maurice to even kiss him, and the latter can only longingly lap up the intense and subtle eroticism of holding his friend’s hand and helping unbutton his friend’s cufflinks…

The most intimate scene between Clive and Maurice, by far, is an iconic sequence in which James Wilby (above) gently strokes Hugh Grant’s hair, a moment tragically cut short by their rowdy college friends storming into the room.

Maurice drops out of college soon—unlike the wealthy Clive, he has no use for academic and intellectual pursuits—and becomes a stockbroker. They drift apart slowly before Clive finally suffers an anxious and emotional breakdown after a former college-mate is arrested on charges of “Gross Indecency” (i.e. homosexual behaviour). Overcome by guilt and fear, he cruelly breaks off his “friendship” with Maurice. Clive decides to lead the life of a respectable (read “straight”) gentleman and marries a wealthy, good-natured, and naïve young woman, ruining both their lives in the process. Maurice becomes distressed, and though he maintains his respectable social position, his life descends into emotional turmoil. Overcome by dismay and desperation, he even visits a hypnotist—played by the legendary Ben Kingsley in a comic role—who tries to “fix” his homosexuality, before ultimately giving up. In a memorable scene, Kingsley’s hypnotist tells a tearful Maurice to move to a sexually liberal country like France or Italy because “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”

Maurice’s emotional state continues to degrade, and his distance from Clive—who masquerades in the artificial façade of a “happily married couple”—increases. An unexpected turn of events however leads Maurice into a passionately physical and intensely liberating affair with a gamekeeper, Alec Scudder—a member of the working classes—a relationship even more transgressive than that with Clive.

In his book, Forster examines not only homosexuality but also the class differences in English society. He examines prejudice and hypocrisy with his work, and the film, to its credit, remains faithful to the source material, keeping much of the incisive dialogue—that too in the original, dated English of the era—and preserving the book’s tone. There are some things that the film leaves out, such as the other men Maurice once desired, like the youthful Dickie Barry, and some things that it adds, such as the arrest of a gay college-mate (which makes Clive’s sudden paranoia and change of heart much more convincing). Just as the book is often graced with lyrical, often poetic passages, the film has an exquisitely rococo, resplendent, and heart-wrenching musical score, composed by the very talented Richard Robbins (also gay; bravo!).

James Ivory, though usually not considered the greatest of directors, has created herein a magnificent tapestry, and the actors have essayed unforgettable performances: James Wilby is at the master of his art as the dull and unintelligent, well-meaning, but also occasionally misogynistic, malicious, and ultimately repressed and troubled Maurice, a fiendishly complex role. Hugh Grant gives a superb and very convincing performance as the pretentious, frightened and muddled, and ultimately tragic Clive. A young and insanely attractive Rupert Graves plays the gamekeeper, Alec Scudder. Wilby and Grant jointly won the award for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival (Ivory won the Silver Lion for Best Director). Even the supporting cast gave gems of performances, with Ben Kingsley as the aforementioned hypnotist, and Simon Callow as Mr. Ducie.

James Wilby is a phenomenal and criminally underrated actor who truly delivers as the conflicted Maurice.

The cinematography, by Pierre Lhomme, is lush and star-studded: scene after scene is brilliantly and magnificently crafted. The pacing is “leisurely, like that of turning the pages of a book”, as the Washington Post remarked. The costumes are historically accurate and, what’s more, look like clothes people would actually have worn, rather than “costumes”: a very rare mastery. Merchant Ivory films, as a whole, succeed in making a historical era look lived-in and inhabited by real people, unlike the theatrical gimmicks most other period films look like.

The story of Maurice, the book, and the film alike, are among my favourites, not least because of the personal connection I feel with Maurice, passing through my own queer coming of age.

I would give both the book and film a solid four 4.5 stars, out of five, deducting half because I wasn’t satisfied with the character development of Alec Scudder, much of whose identity was “poor” and “impulsive”. The movie can be let off for this because of the time constraints and the source material’s own drawback: while Forster ideally believed in the equal dignity of all human beings, he had a weakness when it came to writing empathetic and well-rounded underprivileged characters. We could, however, view Alec as an allegory of the freedom and self-realization that comes to Maurice towards the end of the novel.

Regardless of its critics and its relative obscurity, Maurice is an enduring tale of love lost and love realized, and of pretense, oppression, and self-discovery that will continue to be relevant for years to come. With this I wish you a very Happy Pride Month, albeit a few days late… but then, isn’t every day Pride after all?

5 thoughts on “Maurice

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    1. Thank you, this means a lot to me!! 🙂 Yes, both the book and the film are really beautiful; I’m sure you’ll have a great experience. Happy reading! And I had to say, I absolutely adore reading your blog and comics. Cheers! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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