In 1987 a trio of relatively unknown British actors – James Wilby, Hugh Grant, and Rupert Graves – starred in James Ivory’s adaptation of E.M. Forester’s novel Maurice. Written in 1914, Maurice was not published until 1971 after Forester’s death and it is considered to be a minor work. Ivory’s film would lead you to believe otherwise.
Some spoilers follow.
Maurice follows the title character, played by Wilby, from a young boy into his early adulthood as he navigates his relationships and sexuality. As a student at Cambridge, he and his friend Clive (Grant) develop a close friendship that turns into something more. Societal and class pressures prevent them from truly being together. In Edwardian society, homosexuality was a punishable offense and Clive, a member of the upper class, does not want to tarnish his future. He goes to great lengths to prevent his relationship with Maurice from becoming physical.
When their gay friend Lord Risley is arrested and sentenced to six months hard labor after soliciting sex, Clive is frightened into ending the relationship. Clive eventually marries Anna, a naive woman, leaving Maurice to sort through his emotions and homosexuality with the help of a hypnotist, Lasker-Jones (played by Ben Kingsley). Lasker-Jones is the closest character the film has to a voice of reason.
Maurice maintains his friendship with Clive (it’s a bit awkward to say the least) and frequently visits his estate Penderleigh. During these visits Maurice meets Alec Scudder (Graves), the under-gamekeeper. Because of their class differences, Maurice fails to notice Scudder at first but they eventually begin a secret relationship that is more satisfying – physically at least – than Maurice’s relationship with Clive ever was.
But Maurice panics, fearing the worst will come of it. Lasker-Jones reminds Maurice that Britain is a country that “has always been disinclined to accept human nature”. The new relationship seems all the more doomed by Scudder’s scheduled departure to Argentina. Yet in the film’s final moments, Maurice and Scudder find their way to one another.
What strikes me most about Maurice is the criticism it received after its release. The film won three prizes at the Venice Film Festival: best director, best actor prize (shared between Wilby and Grant), and best music (for Richard Robbins’ score). Yet Maurice had little impact afterwards. (I know, I know – I shouldn’t judge a movie’s cultural impact based on the awards it receives.)
As with Forester’s novel, the film adaptation was questioned for presenting too positive of a conclusion. How is a happy resolution credible for a story set in pre-World War I England? It is as if it breaks some unspoken rule that gay relationships in cinema must be presented negatively. When it comes to queer cinema, this is something I have never understood.
When you really analyze Maurice, you will see that despite the characters finding personal happiness, it isn’t overwhelmingly positive. Maurice and Scudder still have to contend with a society that isn’t changing overnight. This is something that Lasker-Jones alludes to when he tells Maurice that if he wants acceptance from society he should leave Britain.
Maurice is also a unique film for the time of its release. 1987 was the height of the AIDS epidemic and the same year that Randy Shilts’ history of the pandemic And The Band Played On was published. It is also a film on the cusp of New Queer Cinema, when independent filmmakers began creating works that were more radical and aggressive in their presentation of gay characters and storylines. These filmmakers – such as Todd Haynes, Derek Jarmen, Gregg Araki – resisted promoting positive images of homosexuality. They were also often working as a direct result of the political response to the AIDS crisis. These films are a contrast to a film like Maurice, which kind of blissfully paces along in pre-World War I England without having to address any of the concerns of present day society.
Does this ultimately benefit or work against Maurice. Because of the performances and direction, Maurice will always stand a test of time. How continued social changes and the legalization of gay marriage affect how I read this film, if at all, will be more intriguing to watch unfold.