From Cinecom Pictures and Four Star International
Directed by James Ivory
Finishing up with this film and I am immediately taken with the thought that it should be higher in my esteem than #41. It feels as if it should be number four or five or at least in the top ten. You will recall that the ranking is not so ingrained in my brain as I write about my 50 favorite films. As long as the film is in there, the number matters little to me.
Tucked away in my leather chair, a glass of vino and other comforts nearby, I am aware about halfway through that I never want this film to end and yet I cannot wait for the ending at the boathouse. All who have seen this film remember the boathouse.
That contrast in feelings reminds me that contrasts come up throughout this lovely piece of film-making. We could start with the author, E. M. Forster, who wrote the novel in 1914 but it was not published until 1971 after his death. Forster set it up that way because it was about homosexual love and he wasn't ready to own up to it in his lifetime. He had lived in an oppressive time for gays and for those who did, some of that never leaves one's psyche even if it looks like the world has changed its attitude a bit.
I'm concluding Forster was Maurice. (That is pronounced, by the way, like Morris, not the Maurice of Chevalier fame. I always wished it would have been the other way around.) It is 1909 and he is attending Cambridge where homosexuality could get you a prison term, maybe with some flogging (the unwanted kind) and hard labor (the unwanted kind). He has a friendship with Clive who is actually the pursuer of taking their friendship a bit further when he declares his love for Maurice. Maurice says it's rubbish but by the time he has decided this man-to-man thing is something he likes, Clive has changed his mind.
Through Clive we understand the times they were in. It was Edwardian England and unless one wants serious trouble, one goes deeply in the closet or gives it all up, preferably the latter. Clive has a great fear of exposure along with desperately wanting to make something of himself in society. His aristocratic ways will insinuate themselves better at some tuxedoed dinner party for 20 than at some unmarked cafe off a dark alley. He knows he needs a wife. He and Maurice will remain friends presumably forever and while Clive may tease a little now and then, platonic is all Maurice is going to get from Clive from now on.
Through Maurice we see a man's determination to live the sexual life he feels he must, despite the times, the secrets, the doubts and the anguish. Maurice's heart keeps hoping that Clive will change his mind and return. Maurice makes himself available for such an occurrence. But it is not to be.
At the same time, Maurice meets Alec Scudder, a gamekeeper on Clive's property. We are treated to another look at the contrast between the haves and the have-nots in England's class system. When their relationship becomes sexual, the contrast is further stretched when Scudder is the one who is more in control. The help pushing around the boss? Hmmm.
The romantic conclusion fills one's heart to the top and is contrasted with a final shot of Clive looking out his upper floor window, down toward the boathouse, no doubt wondering about his choices.
James Ivory and his business and life partner, Ismael Merchant, certainly knew what to bring to the table on a project such as this one. Ivory even co-authored the script. They collected a number of actors and technical crew with them from A Room with a View and they kept the momentum of excellence in full operation. This film is handsomely mounted, intelligently presented, superbly acted and with acute attention paid to the period. I think it is one of those rare films that every single scene is a revelation in itself. Each scene tells its own story with a beginning, middle and end. And then it is all stitched together to create a richly-woven tapestry of manners and morals and class-distinction and an exploration of sexuality, including both repressed and uninhibited.
Julian Sands, an actor I so admired in A Room with a View, was supposed to play Maurice but he was tied up on another project and James Wilby was substituted. I wish Sands had done it because I liked him so much. Wilby does a fine job but seemed a bit too remote for my tastes, maybe even distracted. Hugh Grant has never really melted my medals but he gave an equally fine performance, arguably his best. Rupert Graves nailed it as the rough-hewn Scudder and he became a bit of a sex-symbol as a result, if I recall it correctly. The entire supporting cast is spot-on but I will single out Judy Parfitt (as Grant's mother) because she does imperious better than anyone I know.
The romantic and sexual scenes in this film seem audacious to me. They did in 1987 and they even do in jaded, been-there-done-that 2012. This was an excellent and daring look at male love and affection and a frank treatment of male nudity.
A shrink in the film says... England has always been disinclined to accept human nature. He may not have known that England doesn't hold the copyright on that one. Forster knew it. After all, he wrote those words, simply giving them to the character to say for him. He himself hid his entire life but he gave us a gift. It's called Maurice. And here is a peek:
NEXT POSTING: James Mason