Maurice at 30: the gay period drama the world wasn't ready for
The elegant Merchant Ivory love story, starring a young Hugh Grant, was largely ignored on release but it’s now receiving a 4K restoration and might finally reach the audience it deserves
Last year, Merchant Ivory’s Howards End, now a quarter of a century
old, got a 4K digital restoration that didn’t seem obviously required.
Until, that is, you saw the result. Those ornate Edwardian interiors,
the sea of rain-spattered umbrellas, that field of bluebells, all made
newly sharp and iridescent – it seemed appropriate treatment for what
stands as the quintessential work from a film-making team now synonymous
with elegantly reserved costume drama. With US distributor Cohen Media
Group having bought up the Merchant Ivory library, one might have
assumed A Room With a View would be next in line for this pristine
treatment. The Remains of the Day, perhaps.
Instead, we’ve been thrown a curveball. Maurice, undervalued in 1987 and underseen today, is getting the digital makeover, hitting cinema screens in time for its 30th anniversary. It’s a surprise, but a welcome one. Adapted from a posthumously published EM Forster novel that is likewise overshadowed in reputation by other works in his canon – like, well, Howards End and A Room With a View – Merchant Ivory’s film opened hot on the heels of their broadly beloved, Oscar-garlanded adaptation of the latter. Almost immediately, it was filed away as, if not a disappointment, a lesser diversion. The Venice film festival jury was highly taken with it, handing prizes to James Ivory and then-fresh-faced stars Hugh Grant and James Wilby, but despite admiring reviews, few followed their lead. Box office was barely a 10th of A Room With a View’s; where that film had been nominated for eight Oscars, winning three, Maurice scraped a solitary bid for its costumes.
The film wasn’t at fault. A tender, graceful love story, performed with quiet emotional conviction and crafted with Merchant Ivory’s signature visual serenity and meticulous period detail, it was an exemplary distillation of its literary source – and a heartily realised passion project for Ivory himself, who adapted Forster’s novel in place of the team’s usual screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. What was different? Those even glancingly acquainted with the film or novel can probably work it out: Maurice was, put bluntly, too gay.
Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant were romantic partners as well as professional ones, though their films rarely reflected their sexuality in anything more than an oblique sense. Many of their greatest films evoke a sense of unspoken desire, of any persuasion, simmering beneath a placid surface of decorum – a repression with which many a gay person, unable always to freely articulate their romantic self, has been able to empathise. Maurice, in a sense, was the duo’s cinematic coming-out: the story of a young man growing into his homosexuality in politely hostile English society, it’s a film that exquisitely queers the stiff-upper-lip emotions so central to the Merchant Ivory oeuvre.
There’s a slight aloofness to Maurice that is part of its beauty.
Shooting with glacial reserve, a minty chill present even in scenes of
the great English summer, Ivory languidly explores the stuffy Cambridge
social circuit, with its cricket matches and country-pile parties, that
the title character is expected to inhabit; Wilby’s painstaking
performance, too, initially comes over as glazed, absent, a man in
search of something to want. The film only breathes when he finally
does, first via a frustrating romantic affair with fellow student and
social climber Clive Durham (Grant, perfectly his floppy charm years
before Four Weddings and a Funeral) – but it’s heartbreak that gives the
film its red-blooded feeling.
From there, as a second romantic chapter with gamekeeper Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves, completing perhaps the prettiest posh-boy triangle in screen history) begins, Maurice gains both in emotional sweep and intimate psychological detail: a tame entry it may be in the LGBT canon, but few films have expressed quite so sweetly and nakedly the challenges of simply being a gay man, partnered or otherwise – how difficult it can be to run with human nature.
This is not emotionally universal terrain, and was a rare subject for prestige heritage cinema to take on: the film’s respectful but dispassionate reception in 1987, not an era rich with queer art in the mainstream, is no surprise in retrospect. Had Forster, for whom the novel also represented a cathartic release of his own sexuality, published it in his lifetime, he might have encountered similar resistance. In 1971, Maurice was received by the literary fraternity as minor by his standards – a verdict that all too often plagues depictions of desire that, while far from minor, is shared only by a minority.
Fast-forward to 2017, in the midst of a thriving LGBT cinema scene and in afterglow of Moonlight’s barrier-busting Oscar triumph, and perhaps audiences will be a little warmer, a little kinder to Maurice. Coincidentally, it hits screens again in the same year that Ivory is basking in the glory of a very different LGBT triumph: now 88, he’s a co-writer on Luca Guadagnino’s queer coming-of-age rhapsody Call Me By Your Name, a Sundance sensation that realises the first rush of gay love with all the woozy sensual excess that Maurice, true to its period, eschews. (They’d make for a remarkable, mutually flattering double bill.) Far from dated, Merchant Ivory’s Maurice looks positively ahead of its time: an honestly strait-laced depiction of alternative sexuality that dared to play by the same rules as any other respectable costume drama.