Criterion Collection

James Ivory

Kit Hesketh-Harvey,
James Ivory
From the novel by:
E.M. Forster

James Wilby,
Hugh Grant,
Rupert Graves,
Denholm Elliott,
Simon Callow,
Ben Kingsley,
Billie Whitelaw,
Barry Foster, Judy Parfitt, Phoebe Nicholls, Patrick Godfrey, Mark Tandy

Rated R, 140 minutes

Merry Old England
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, April 2009



To state the obvious, early twentieth century Edwardian England was not a good time to be gay. The climate was so bad that noted novelist E.M. Forster began writing a book with a homosexual hero in 1913 that he never published in his lifetime. It finally saw the light of day in 1971, a year after he died at the age of 91. That book, of course, is Maurice and it ignited a firestorm amongst scholars who refused to acknowledge the author's sexual identity. In 1987, Merchant Ivory Productions adapted the book to the screen as the second of three films to celebrate Forster's novels; the other two being A Room With A View and Howard's End. (Forster also wrote A Passage To India and the libretto to Benjamin Britten's 1951 opera of Herman Melville's Billy Budd.)

Maurice is a story of its times and is therefore as much concerned with class distinctions as it is with the era's hostile attitudes towards homosexuality. This will be discussed in more detail later. The film, typical of Merchant Ivory Productions, is a sumptuous recreation of Edwardian England with superb performances and a meticulous attention to period detail. It is a rich filmgoing experience and one of the most beautiful films in all of queer cinema.

The story concerns Maurice (pronounced "Morris") Hall, played by James Wilby. Maurice is an upper middle class gentleman attending King's College, Cambridge in 1909. His best friend is Clive Durham (Hugh Grant), a young man of elevated social standing. Clive is unorthodox in behavior and delights in antics such as shocking his mother by refusing to attend mass on Christmas. Clive introduces Maurice to the writings of the Greeks, especially Plato, and eventually declares his undying love. The two lads share a chaste and Platonic love affair that is kept hidden from the other schoolboys. This relationship lasts for three years. Maurice clearly desires a physical connection as well, but Clive thinks this would cheapen and spoil the beauty of their love. The high-born Clive also harbors great ambitions and, as time passes by, he begins conforming more to what is acceptable and demanded by polite society.

The turning point occurs when a foppish acquaintance from Cambridge named Lord Risley (an Oscar Wilde clone) is arrested on a "morals charge" and sent to prison. The scandal occupies the front page of the newspapers. Clive is so horrified by this monstrous turn of events that he falls into a swoon as if he were the heroine of a Victorian novel. Maurice becomes equally devastated when Clive abruptly declares his intentions to marry and fulfill the aristocratic position that awaits him in public life. "Think how easy life is," Clive pleads, "For people who don't have to go through all this... secrecy. Never being able to talk about the person whom you're in love with to anybody. Imagining the servants are thinking things." Their break-up isn't pretty but they remain uneasy friends.
In part two, Maurice is a frequent guest at Clive's ancestral estate. Clive is married and observing all the proper forms while Maurice pines for his lost love. Before long, he unexpectedly enters into an affair with Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves), the young and uncouth under-gamekeeper who has been watching him with keen interest. One night, he awakes from a nightmare as Scudder climbs into his window and joins him in bed (mirroring a much earlier scene in which Maurice crawled through Clive's window at Cambridge). With this bold act, Maurice's transgression crosses both sexual and class boundaries as he dares to cavort with his social inferior.
Maurice offered something virtually unprecedented in queer fiction - the two lovers were allowed a happy ending. In an epilogue to Maurice, written in 1960, Forster explains his insistence that the story end happily even though he well knew that, given societal prejudice, such a thing would rarely be possible. While this might not be realistic, it is nevertheless affirming, at least in a fairy tale sort of way. Forster is to be commended for not ending the book with the obligatory suicide and it is a shame that Maurice wasn't published during his lifetime. Some may call this cowardice on the author's part, but Forster simply didn't want to be bothered with the inevitable scandals. (He did, however, show it to a few carefully selected friends, such as fellow gay novelist Christopher Isherwood.)
The film of Maurice is a marvelous adaptation of a classic novel and one of the best that modern cinema has given us. The film follows the book rather closely, often lifting large chunks of dialogue verbatim, but also adding a few distinct improvements. The character of Lord Risley was smaller in the novel and he was not arrested for buggery as he is in the film. By showing his arrest and enforcing the harsh sentence, the film is able to both dramatize the dangers of being homosexual in Edwardian England and provide a clearer motivation for Clive's sudden rejection of Maurice. It is also worth noting that, as in the trials of Oscar Wilde before him, the judge makes it clear that, because Risley is "a man of breeding," his corruption of the lower classes is an equally abominable offense.
As noted earlier, notions of class differences are as important to an appreciation of Maurice as its exploration of repressed sexuality. In this vein, Maurice's affair with the servant Scudder is a double crime against society. These themes are also shared by D.H. Lawrence's notorious banned book, Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928). Lady Chatterley also takes a lover beneath her social status (outlaw authors seemed to love this topic). The public outcry against this book (it was published only in clandestine editions for several decades) may have reinforced Forster's decision to keep his 1913 Maurice out of the public view. (However, Forster was one of the few writers to defend Lawrence's literary reputation when he died two years after completing Lady Chatterley's Lover, and he also testified at a 1960 obscenity trial surrounding the book's first legitimate publication in Great Britain.)
The themes that are explored in Maurice are clearly established in the opening scene of both the novel and the film. Maurice, as a young boy, is being told "the facts of life" by Mr. Ducie, his prep school teacher (beautifully embodied with great rectitude by the great Simon Callow). Ducie calls it "the great mystery of sex." Maurice is told that his body is God's "temple" and that it must never be abused. His greatest aspiration should be to one day fulfill his destiny by marrying a woman and producing children. Ducie's wish to instruct the father-less lad is noble but also ultimately comic when he starts to draw anatomical diagrams in the sand. Maurice flippantly replies that he will never marry.
And what about the attitudes of the time regarding homosexuality itself? Aside from the entrapment and arrest of Lord Risley, here are a few other examples. During an early scene, Maurice and several schoolmates are taking turns reading, and translating aloud, verses from Plato's Symposium in the Dean's parlour. As one of the students stumbles through a passage about Zeus and Ganymede, the Dean mutters, "Omit the reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks." Maurice is later taken aback by Clive's first declaration of love and panics. "I thought it was the worst crime in the calendar," Maurice protests as he returns to apologize, "The one subject absolutely beyond the limit."
In another, almost comic, scene, Maurice visits an old family friend, Dr. Barry (Denholm Elliott), to discuss a problem and the doctor immediately assumes that his young charge has a venereal disease. When Maurice confesses that he's "like Lord Risley. I'm an unspeakable. Of the Oscar Wilde sort," Dr. Barry dismisses it as "rubbish" and suggests that he find himself a nice girl and he will be cured. In desperation, Maurice pays several visits to a hypnotist, played by Ben Kingsley, for a cure. (The hypnotist features prominently in the nightmare that Maurice has when Scudder climbs the ladder into his room.) After Maurice confesses his tryst with Alec Scudder, the doctor senses that his treatments will be futile. "I needn't remind you that your sort were once put to death in England," the doctor states, and suggests that Maurice move to some country like France or Italy where homosexuality is no longer criminal. When Maurice asks if it will ever be like that in England, the doctor sadly remarks that "England has always been disinclined to accept human nature." Suspense is generated in the last act when Maurice fears that Scudder is going to blackmail him. This was a real danger at the time, and for many decades afterwards (see 1961's Victim for another story about blackmailing homosexuals in England).
As established by Mr. Ducie's teachings, nothing is more important to the perpetuation of polite society than the appearance of an upright and proper marriage. Maurice, even as a child, is out of step with the world at large and sees Ducie's lessons as lies when his teacher suddenly panics that the tide might not wash away his sand drawings before another strolling family comes upon them. Maurice will reject this world, and all its hypocritical trappings, when he risks everything to be with Scudder. "What a grotesque announcement," is all Clive can say in the penultimate scene. As the film ends, Clive is looking out his window, his wife standing behind him, as Maurice disappears into the trees. He then sees the young Maurice at Cambridge, beckoning to him, but all he can do is look on in sadness at the life that he could have had.
The cast is superb and truly brings this tale to life. Though each of the three principals are straight, it is a credit to them that they embraced these roles with such gusto. (Remember that this 1987 when playing gay wasn't yet the sure ticket to an Oscar nomination.) Because Clive kept chaste with Maurice, we never see them without clothes but their scenes together - especially the tender touches and embraces between them - evoke the fire of Heathcliff and Catherine in a Bronte novel. Maurice and Alec, on the other hand, are seen naked together and the fierce passion they share in bed was quite bold on the film's first release. The film also features a fine pedigree of English actors. Billie Whitelaw appears as Maurice's mother and two gay elder statesmen, Simon Callow and Denholm Elliott, memorably portray Mr. Ducie and Dr. Barry.
On all levels, Maurice is an exquisitely executed film and the two disc DVD does it justice. There are marvelous interviews with longtime life partners James Ivory and the late Ismail Merchant, as well as each of the principal actors. Lovers of the film will be enthralled by more than a half hour of deleted scenes, including two major subplots, that were eliminated in order to keep the film from being three hours long. One entails Maurice's clumsy and futile attempts to seduce a young houseguest, and another the suicide of Lord Risley.

In 1913, when E.M. Forster was 35, he visited the simple country home of author Edward Carpenter and his working class lover, George Merrill. Carpenter, a disciple of poet Walt Whitman and an outspoken Socialist, had resigned his academic post at Cambridge and published The Intermediate Sex, in which he defended homosexuality in Platonic terms. Carpenter, who also believed in living simply with nature ala Thoreau, saw the love between men as a bond that could bring members of different classes together. This visit would have the most profound effect on Forster. He writes in the "Terminal Note," the epilogue written almost fifty years later for Maurice, that he'd sought out Carpenter as one would "approach a savior." He'd found that Carpenter and Merrill's relationship, forbidden across both gender and class lines, had...

"touch[ed] a creative spring. George Merrill also touched my backside - gently and just above the buttocks... The sensation was unusual and I still remember it... It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving my thoughts."

Forster began to compose Maurice after this epiphanal meeting. Forster had written about class before in previous novels (A Room With a View and Howard's End) but now, after seeing these two men together, he witnessed the fullfillment of both of his dreams. The story of Maurice Hall and Alec Scudder was no doubt inspired by Carpenter's relationship with Merrill.

I guess this cynical reviewer can be a romantic sometimes because I can't think of a more awesome way for a work of art to have been conceived. This is why Forster gave Maurice and Alec a happy ending. He saw that it was possible... rare, but possible. Knowing all this, the ending of Maurice becomes even happier now, doesn't it?

If you've never seen it, check it out. It is a masterpiece.


More on Merchant Ivory:

Simon Callow also appears in:
Bedrooms & Hallways
Angels In America
Surveillance 24/7