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Review: ‘Maurice’: Unconventional love, conformity and isolation amid Britain’s privileged classes

James Wilby, left, and Hugh Grant in the 1987 film “Maurice.”
(Cohen Media)

Note: This review was originally published Oct. 1, 1987. The film is being re-released by Cohen Media in a 30th anniversary 4K restoration.

With compassion, humor and detachment, James Ivory’s superb film of E.M. Forster’s “Maurice” takes us into the complacent, fixed world of Britain’s privileged classes in the years immediately before World War I.

The key settings are Cambridge in all its ancient academic glory, a large, upper-middle-class home in suburban London and the ever-so-slightly crumbling mansion of Wiltshire landed gentry. It is a world of dark burnished wood and polished silver, at once made comfortable by servants and formal by customs that ritualize everything from meals to sports to dress. It offers a seductively cozy, absolute security for the conventional — and no place at all for those who defy its codes. It could be an absolute hell for a homosexual, which is what E.M. Forster was himself.

Forster shrewdly made his hero, Maurice, an utterly regular fellow, neither brilliant nor dull, a perfect product of his time and place except for his sexual orientation. Maurice’s slow, agonized dawning of his true nature and its consequences are as beautifully evoked on the screen as it is on the printed page, thanks to James Wilby’s wonderfully unaffected portrayal of Maurice and to Ivory and his co-adapter Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s graceful yet succinct script, a miracle of both apt selectivity and development that does full honor to its distinguished source.

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The feelings that the bright, Arrow-shirt-ad-handsome Clive (Hugh Grant) stir in Maurice plunge them both into multisided conflict, for their love for each other puts them at odds not only with their social class but also the teachings of their Anglican background, the views of the medical profession at the time — Freud had clearly not yet dented the English upper-middle classes — and finally British law, which made them susceptible to blackmail as well as prison sentences. (Homosexuality was not decriminalized in Great Britain until 1967.)

Clive may refuse Communion but at heart both men like their positions in society and have no desire to compromise their assured futures. Their sense of propriety, reinforced by guilt and fear, forbids them to consummate their love physically. As students and later as young men about town they pursue their platonic ideal without raising eyebrows, but we have to wonder how long this idyllic accommodation can last, especially when they’re both expected to marry as a matter of course.

Forster felt that he had slighted Clive, and Ivory and Hesketh-Harvey have in fact deftly embellished the plot, devising a fate for his aristocratic friend Risley (Mark Tandy), whose effect upon Clive makes his own character and motivations more understandable. Forster surely would have approved of such an inspired stroke in what is a remarkably faithful and perceptive adaptation of a novel. As in the book, Maurice however remains the central figure, a man who discovers he must decide to what extent he’s willing to conform to the expectations of a society in which he feels increasingly isolated — a society that deals with homosexuality by trying to deny its very existence.

Just as a very patrician Cambridge dean (Barry Foster) commands that students omit a reference to the “unspeakable vice of the Greeks” during a translation of Plato’s Symposium, Maurice’s formidable family physician (Denholm Elliott), to whom he confesses his homosexuality, insists that “the worst thing I could do for you is to discuss it.” An American “hypnotherapist” (Ben Kingsley) is not much help to Maurice, but he does sensibly advise living abroad, in France or Italy, where homosexuality is not illegal. “England,” he says, very amusingly, “has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”

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The odyssey of self-discovery upon which Maurice embarks is not just that of a homosexual struggling to accept himself but that of anyone who finds himself/herself in conflict with society’s norms. “Struggles like his are the supreme achievement of humanity, and surpass any legends about Heaven,” Forster declared nobly. The irony is that Maurice, in order to cope in his growing honesty with himself, must become a much better, far more sensitive man than had he been heterosexual.

“Maurice” is well-nigh flawless, starting with its performances in which the slightest inflection can be loaded with significance. So insinuating is Patrick Godfrey’s valet (to Clive), for example, that we’re invited to assume that he’s aware of Maurice and Clive’s feelings for each other, but we could never prove it.

Grant’s portrayal of Clive, a young man who finds compromise as possible as Maurice does not, equals that of Wilby’s Maurice in its intelligence and subtlety. Rupert Graves is Clive’s tousle-headed gamekeeper, a young man more honest with himself than the bourgeois and the aristocrats whom he serves yet is ever more vulnerable than they. Billie Whitelaw is Maurice’s proper and innocent mother, and Judy Parfitt is Clive’s mother, infuriatingly arch and condescending. Simon Callow is the headmaster to the adolescent Maurice, a man comically tongue-tied in his attempt to explain the facts of life to the boy. Like the actors already mentioned, they could scarcely be better — although to American ears Kingsley’s American accent does sound affected and artificial.

Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme’s images are by and large dark-hued, which is appropriate, while Richard Robbins’ score soars with an elegant romanticism. Period-perfect costumes and settings are a Merchant Ivory hallmark, and in this “Maurice” is no exception.

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For 25 years Ivory and his producer Ismail Merchant — their longtime writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was too busy completing a novel to do the script this time but did act as a consultant — have been true to themselves, making many sophisticated, intimate films that have often been literary adaptations. In the past one has occasionally been overly conscious of the source in these adaptations. But with “A Room with a View,” the previous Merchant Ivory film from Forster, and now with “Maurice,” Ivory has created films that have lives entirely of their own.

In a 1960 postscript, Forster, whose 1913 novel was published posthumously, decided that “Maurice” was dated, mainly because he concluded that there is so little escape possible for the individual in modern Britain — except at the movies! Yet Forster rightly insisted that “Maurice” is “more than a period piece.” It is timeless both in the larger sense — in its luminous depiction of an individual struggling against his fate — and in the more specific sense, as a story of homosexual experience. For all that gay liberation has accomplished, homosexuals still must deal with much that confronted Maurice — especially at a time when the AIDS crisis, the re-affirmation of the papal stance against homosexuality and the emergence of religious fundamentalists as a political force conspire to undermine all the hard-won gay rights of the last 20 years. The plain truth is that in general — rather than in specifics — the story of “Maurice” has not dated at all.

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‘Maurice’

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Rating: R

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Playing: Landmark Nuart, West L.A.

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