2017 marks 30 years since the release of Maurice, the film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel which helped to put Hugh Grant (hm, yesyes, of courseofcourse) on the cultural map. In honor of its 30th birthday, a 4K restoration will be returning to cinemas. Notice I said “cinemas” instead of “theaters” because I feel all foppish and Britishy after spending 2.5 hours in the world of Merchant Ivory productions.
Maurice was my first foray into Merchant Ivory’s catalogue, but decades of parody had me knowing exactly what to expect: tuxedos at the beach, driving goggles, motorcycle side-cars, propriety, impropriety, manners, parasols, carriages, wind blowing through grassy dunes, women fanning themselves at the mere mention of anything even remotely suggestive, and of course, FORBIDDEN LUST! Peppered throughout are a healthy dose of “I do believes” and even the occasional “well, I NEVER!”
I sound like I’m making fun, and despite being programmed by decades of comically accurate parody, the spells cast by Merchant Ivory Productions ultimately won me over, warts, ascots, and all.
A little color before I describe the plot: because everyone in the film speaks with a proper English accent, Maurice is pronounced “Morris.” I can’t say why it’s important, but I do believe it is. Yes yes, of courseofcourse.
The film opens with our fatherless hero being taught the birds and the bees by his teacher, who wants to prepare young Maurice for the changes and challenges that come with puberty. The teacher uses a stick to draw the female anatomy in the sand, and before you can say “comedy of errors” the ocean waves fail to wash away the salacious doodle, and a group of proper ladies see it and fan themselves in hot-and-bothered embarrassment. At this moment I thought to myself, “so wait, how long is this movie?” I contemplated making a cup of tea (when in pre-WWI England…), but convinced myself to try and view the movie on its own terms, even if just to get a better understanding of how Hugh Grant came to be such a powerful force of celebrity that it confounded people when he was caught with a hooker.
Maurice grows into a proper young man (portrayed with aplomb by James Wilby), who happens to be a homosexual. In such a place and at such a time, homosexuality is not just forbidden, but it’s never even spoken of. It’s illegal, immoral, and worst of all, IMPROPER. But nature is what it is and when Maurice heads off to university (that’s what they call college in England), he begins to explore his sexuality. He’s closed off at first, shunning the advances of Clive (Hugh Grant), but soon begins to shed the shame he feels and follow his nature, facing all of the challenges that it can bring.
We follow both Clive and Maurice as they traverse the turbulent waters of sexuality, and in doing so, we are taken to some admittedly surprising places. I, for one, did not expect a film about homosexuality from 1987 to feel so un-exploitative. I also did not expect for the content to play without gimmick. Maurice is a classic “forbidden romance” tale, with the subject matter being portrayed in such a way that the use of homosexuality as a narrative thrust seems natural instead of novel. It’s a hill that — three decades later — many movies still struggle to climb, I do say. I do indeed. Hm, yesyesofcourse.
For a movie of this length to be so eminently watchable is another hurdle which is still so rarely cleared, but perhaps that is what the Merchant Ivory brand does best (I will have to see a few more entries to confirm this theory). What I mean is that at any point when the movie threatens to take a detour into blandness, the guilty scene will either end, throw some cheeky humor at us, or take a sudden tonal shift to keep things fresh. Often times there will be a time jump indicated by a title card (Pendersleigh Park – 1910; The City – 1911) and a change in everybody’s facial hair. My big fear was the one lie put forth by so much parody of the form: I sincerely thought long stretches of Maurice would be unbearably bland, but the brisk pace never lets up. Even when it comes close to stumbling, one must only appreciate the flawless set design, the impeccable lighting, or the myriad on-location settings. Fun fact: Cambridge apparently took some convincing before allowing the film be shot on their premises. The reason being that the source novel, at least amongst their scholarly ranks, was deemed to be an inferior Forster work. I like to imagine that the decision to permit the production to go forward was made via a committee of mustached men who grumble agreeably/disagreeably in unison.
At one point in Hugh Grant confidently declares “I say, I’m going to faint.” He then faints. I do believe I then laughed. How tickled I was! Yesofourse, hm, yesyes.
Another fun thing: Ben Kingsley plays a hypnotist who Maurice hires to “mesmerize the gay away.” The mystique associated with hypnotists at the dawn of the 20th century is an interesting thing to think about. It’s depicted in the very same way I viewed hypnotists when I was a child. My notion of what a hypnotherapist is capable of has since changed, but seeing it portrayed as such is a great indicator of how little we understood the brain and human sexuality back then. It’s also a clear measuring tool for how simplistic our current understanding of these concepts will likely seem in another century or so.
That’s what ultimately won me over about this movie: it tells a truly timeless tale about social structures and how they can shape human expression; how the powers that be can unfairly suppress nature; how nature can only be suppressed and not changed. As silly as a lot of it felt, there’s an undeniably powerful thematic framework, and with such a fine cast of performers in such a meticulously crafted film, one can’t help but grapple with it and submit to it. And really, the silliness was highlighted only by my own assumptions about the Merchant Ivory brand, not by the content of the film.
Grrrm, hm yes yes, I do believe I’ve said enough, guvnah. Perhaps it’s time to turn in, then, shall we? Hm, yes, of courseofcourse.
Fancy a biscuit?
Maurice opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.