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Maurice: BFI rerelease of Merchant-Ivory’s Edwardian gay love story
July 27, 2018
Merchant-Ivory’s Edwardian love story Maurice returns to cinemas this week. The film’s dialogue with the moment of its arrival in 1987 has stretched to an extra thirty years, well past its advent during the AIDS crisis in which no one much wanted to see a gay love story end well.
Such historical open-endedness heightens the film’s depiction of maddening stasis. It’s a tensely elegiac adaptation of E.M Forster’s 1913 novel, a story of the pitfalls of not being able to live freely in a society which presumes to know its players. It makes its plans for them and holds them unthinkingly above suspicion, until it doesn’t. James Wilby is reticent, worried Maurice, a bourgeois would-be banker whose romance with old-monied Clive Durham begins and ends at Cambridge in the 1910s. Durham is played by Hugh Grant before he was Hugh Grant, initially with the same scene-stealing easy charm and aptitude for being romanticized by other characters (and viewers) that we know from the Richard Curtis roles that made him famous, but it’s Clive who quickly strangles the affair by twisting the power balance away from Maurice and towards himself. Clive initially confesses his love and is rebuffed, but after Maurice changes his mind, Clive is repelled by his fear and retreats for good.
A perennially deft, sensitive control of mood lends a reserved poignancy to Merchant-Ivory’s melancholic narratives of the joy and burden of human connection. Maurice is no different, sharing with Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993) dim light and a grainy, slightly blurred look, enhanced by a catalogue of upper-class English colours: mahogany, lawn green, pewter. They conjure a hemmed-in world with a beautiful surface dulled by convention, reflecting Maurice and Clive’s habitation of their respective gentlemanly roles. In the film’s second half, Grant effects a disconcerting shift in character, altering from puppyish undergraduate to a harshly jovial, clipped-moustached politician, marrying within his class and enjoying a successful career. Maurice, unable to bear the smoothness of the plans laid by his family for the rest of his life, and wearied by seeking out attempts to ‘cure’ his sexuality, falls in love with Scudder (Rupert Graves), a servant at Clive’s country seat, and so expels himself from the society which could not hold him.
The Cambridge scenes are the most wrenching, defined by a tantalising atmosphere of romance which can only exist as surface, in the self-conscious rituality of punting and intellectual conversation – nothing that can make Clive and Maurice’s relationship meaningful. Their time at university is also marked by the scrutiny of official history. Shots linger on the colleges’ ancient, forbidding exteriors and the watchful statues of the rooftop Apostles, or move outward to take in the buildings: rigorous, masculine, sternly moral learnedness. The only established concession is an intimate, non-sexual relationship; in a Classics supervision, passages of Plato are censored by the professor as the students translate aloud. Simultaneously, opportunities not viable in the outside world present themselves. Cambridge is depicted as a comparatively permissive environment screened from women, able to hold camp aristocrat Risley (Mark Tandy) who still, outside the college walls, meets a monitory, Wildean fate.
Both relationships – Maurice and Clive, and Maurice and Scudder – involve so many other people who make their presence itchily felt. James Ivory wrote the screenplay for Call Me By Your Name which stands behind Maurice in many ways – there’s a contrast between the tender, understanding, if remote and temporary, community surrounding Elio and Oliver, and the unwittingly threatening network here of bosses and professors, mothers and sisters. While the film was an outlier in the 1980s for depicting a gay romance that didn’t end in suicide, the icy hostility of Edwardian Englishness points, for Clive at least, to a living death, and the contingency and importance of the acceptance of others.
Maurice is showing now at BFI Southbank and selected cinemas across the UK.
Words by Charlotte Palmer.
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