I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the mid-1980s to early 1990s films of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant—from The Bostonians in 1984 to The Remains of the Day in 1993, with choice titles in between, including A Room with a View, Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, and the recently restored Howards End. Two of these three titles were adapted from the works of E.M. Forster, whose writings were the basis of the lesser-seen 1987 drama Maurice, probably best known for featuring a very early screen appearance by a fresh-faced and devastatingly charming Hugh Grant.
The novel was written in 1914 but sadly remained unprinted until 1971 for reasons that will be quite clear. The story involves two best friends at Cambridge in the years before World War I—Maurice (James Wilby) and the more sophisticated Clive (Grant), who are inseparable and eventually fall in love, although they agree that getting to physical could be quite dangerous in a time when homosexuality was an illegal and punishable offense. The film follows them across many years, with Clive eventually deciding that being gay was too dangerous after a mutual friend is caught and has his life ruined by the scandal. He puts distance between them only long enough to find a worthy candidate for a wife, and he sincerely tries to resume the friendship with Maurice, with the heartbroken Maurice attempting to reciprocate.
The tragedy of Maurice is that these two men would clearly be at their happiest together, but societal restrictions and potentially ruined reputations won’t let that happen. Maurice even attempts to seek medical help for his feelings toward men, first from his family physician (Denholm Elliott), who is outraged that Maurice even thinks he might have thoughts “like Oscar Wilde,” then from a hypnotherapist (Ben Kingsley), who believes he can implant suggestions that would make Maurice feel physically ill at the thought of being with a man.
But everything changes when Maurice is staying at Clive’s estate and is approached in the night by rough-around-the-edges servant Alec (Rupert Graves), who has a reputation for sleeping with many of the female servants where he works. At first Maurice fears that Alec is going to blackmail him, and Alec’s emotional instability about the relationship certainly makes it seem like that or some other dangerous scenario is about to play out. But it becomes clear that both have feelings for the other, and now the questions remains: Where can they possibly go from here?
Despite the soft focus and production design fineries that are a part of every Merchant-Ivory film, Maurice remains a surprisingly honest portrait of the gay experience for men of some influence. More importantly, these men are not portrayed in an insulting way or as victims of the time. They were to a degree, in that they couldn’t live openly, but they found ways to be happy despite the restrictions. The version of the film hitting theaters now is a 4K digital restoration that reveals a great number of beautiful touches to the look of the sets and locations. And it shows us that Hugh Grant’s skin is flawless. Certainly no more or less angst-ridden that other Forster adaptations of the time, Maurice is a worthy entry among the best Merchant-Ivory had to offer.
The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.