Review: Maurice, directed by James Ivory

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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.

REVIEW:
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.

Buy the DVD: Amazon, Amazon UK

7 Responses

  1. A very good review for a wonderful movie.

    James Wilby is outstanding as Maurice, as is Rupert Graves as Alec. I’m not fond of Hugh Grant, but he performed well in the role of Clive, for whom I had little sympathy in both book and movie.

    I agree that the extra scenes in the DVD should’ve been included – I felt the film lacked clarity because of their exclusion, especially in the scenes between Alec and Maurice.

    The cast interviews were particularly interesting, especially where James and Rupert discuss how they went about planning for the “big” scene at the end of of the movie.

    I’m glad you wrote this, because it’s brought back some happy memories of one of my favourite movies. I must watch it again!

  2. “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.”

    You just ruined a decent review with your own sissyphobic gender fascist bigotry and internalised homophobia while managing to ignore the numerous obvious comments on misogyny and the construction of masculinity Ivory makes throughout the movie. Congratulations: you got what you deserved. A gay Barbara Cartland novel.

  3. Hi Nosferatu,

    Well, I’m sorry you were offended by my comments regarding effeminacy, as that certainly wasn’t my intention when I wrote that part. It’s probably not the best way of conveying my meaning (seeing your reaction to it), which is the assertion that the film gives us a realistic portrait of a gay man, one that goes against stereotypes that can be damaging when used against homosexuals.

    I need to state the obvious here.

    Effeminacy is certainly one point in the spectrum of homosexual behavior (for lack of a better term; sorry, it’s quite late where I am right now). It’s real, it’s natural, and it is, unfortunately, oftentimes twisted and used as a point of mockery against gay men. I’ve heard too many people say, “So-and-so’s gay? But he doesn’t act gay!” and define “acting gay” as “effeminacy” when prodded for an explanation. A lot of men – even straight men – get attacked by bigots because they happen to fit a pre-conceived picture of homosexuality: small frame or soft features or “girlish” mannerisms, etc.

    If you reread that section of my review, I did say “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.” I said “defining” – as in a generalized and widely accepted idea of what is homosexual behavior to the exclusion of other characteristics. And, yes, I call these stereotypes – when used against gay men to propagate hatred against them – as bigoted for the obvious reason that people twist certain natural behaviors into a demoralizing attack against a group. Wilby’s performance is successful for its realism as the “other flavor” of a gay man, the kind that some of those who subscribe to the “gay = effeminacy = ineffectual softness (because, apparently, girliness is weak to them; yeah, talk about misogyny) = bad” stereotype can’t seem to comprehend.

    As for the misogyny, that theme is, to me, toned down quite a bit in the film compared to the book. It’s there, yes, but it’s not as blatant as it is in Forster’s novel, and in my review, I had to choose only a limited number of points I can discuss without turning the review into an all-out academic dissection of the film and its script that can run several pages long. So I settled on just the basics – camera work and acting – which may or may not be sufficient, depending on the reader.

  4. I am actually shocked at the abuse, here, “Nosferatu” – and in that light, I am going to have change the settings on this blog to ISP logging. I welcome any open and frank exchange of views, lively discussion, and even opposing arguments, but I will NOT tolerate any namecalling on any blog that I moderate.

  5. I completely agree with your comments about the improbability of Maurice’s and Alec’s relationship, which is always what has bothered me the most about the story. Given the class system of the time, and the wide gulf separating the two men in regard to education, upbringing, and income, it’s hard to imagine how these two would have managed. For one thing, they had very few points of reference in common in terms of their outlooks, values, and expectations, and I don’t see either being able to change so radically and swiftly as to conform to the other. Also, where would they have gone, especially if Maurice had to sacrifice his job, home, assets, family, and social network? Would he and Alec both have worked as laborers? It’s hard to believe that Maurice would be able to accept that life for long, or that his love for Alec would have been enough to sustain him. I suppose he could smoothe out some of Alec’s rougher edges over time and help him to become more educated–after all, Alec is clearly no less intelligent or capable than Maurice, and both know it (I certainly think Alec certainly has more self-confidence than Maurice). But would Maurice be able to overcome his innate class prejudices sufficiently not to be ashamed of Alec’s accent or lack of social skills? And where would they ever be accepted as a couple? It’s all possible, of course, and probably did happen somewhere to some couple, but it’s just very hard to imagine that the relationship between these two, despite their best and most sincere intentions, would be able to survive the economic, legal, and social tyranny exercised by the culture of that day. Even despite love, after all, we are very much in the world and the world is very much in us.

    That said, I think you’ve hit it when you refer to the “what if?” aspect of the movie’s ending. I believe Forster himself acknowledged that, in real life, he wouldn’t be very hopeful about the perpetual happiness of Maurice and Alec, but he wished it might be so. It’s a fairy-tale ending, but given when the novel was written, we can understand why the author so yearned for it to be possible. And understood in that context, it’s possible for us to accept it as well.

  6. Hi Paul,

    I think you just made me fall in love with you over your discussion. 😀

    That said, I think you’ve hit it when you refer to the “what if?” aspect of the movie’s ending. I believe Forster himself acknowledged that, in real life, he wouldn’t be very hopeful about the perpetual happiness of Maurice and Alec, but he wished it might be so. It’s a fairy-tale ending, but given when the novel was written, we can understand why the author so yearned for it to be possible. And understood in that context, it’s possible for us to accept it as well.

    The “what if” nature of the novel’s conclusion is incredibly poignant when seen along the lines that you note. Look beyond the more surface level of implausibility, and we do see Forster’s hopes, which are pretty reflective of his time. And like you said, as long as we understand where he was coming from, and how much of a moral and social pressure cooker that period in history was to many gay men, it would be easier for us to accept and understand. Definitely a wrong thing to impose our more liberal values on him and his works and judge them accordingly.

    Thanks so much for such a thoughtful response.

  7. Aw, shucks, I’m blushing! Wanna ride off into the sunset together?

    But, seriously, Hayden, you’re welcome. I’d just watched the film for the first time in a few years just before I came across this blog, so I was in “Maurice” mode and couldn’t resist putting in my two cents. I hadn’t seen many gay-themed films before I first saw this one and it had a considerable impact on me. (I remember holding my breath during that scene in Cambridge where Clive is leaning against Maurice’s leg and they begin those tentative caresses.) Glad you liked what I had to say.

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