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Retro Review: Maurice

Before Call Me By Your Name, James Ivory directed this landmark piece of LGBTQ cinema during the 80s

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Image: Merchant Ivory Productions

Director: James Ivory
Starring: James Wilby, Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves
Length: 2hr 20m
Rating: 15

Let's throw it back to 1987, the year that James Ivory's Maurice was released. The film is a sumptuous delight of cinematography, based on E. M. Forster's novel based on his own struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality. Back then, the presence of the LGBTQ community in film and TV was not what it is today. With the recent releases of masterpieces such as Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name, it's very difficult to imagine how an unashamedly gay film like Maurice would have been received back in the 80s, and the important place it must have held in the hearts of the LGBTQ community at the time.

Now let's throw it right back to pre-WW1 Britain, when the film was set. The stifling pressure of society's expectations weighs heavily over the film, as it does over its characters. James Wilby plays the titular role, Maurice Hall, an innocent, fun-loving student at Cambridge. He encounters Clive Durham, played by the (at the time) young heartthrob Hugh Grant, who opens his mind as well as his heart. They form a firm friendship, which swiftly turns into a full flung romance when Durham declares his love and Maurice comes to the realisation that it is possible to be in love with another man. Their romance is depicted beautifully and tactfully for a respectable Merchant Ivory period piece. They saunter around Cambridge, punt on the river, roll about in fields of wheat and steal feverish kisses through bedroom windows. However, their forbidden love cannot sustain itself, and Durham's conformity and aristocratic responsibilities leads him push Maurice away in favour of a more respectable marriage to a woman.

The film does a good job of highlighting to the audience the stakes of a romance such as theirs in Edwardian Britain, so that Durham's choice seems like less of a betrayal and more of a means for survival. Their fellow Cambridge scholar is tricked by a guard and imprisoned on the charge of homosexuality, a fate that could be awaiting our protagonist at every corner.

Maurice descends into despair, with the fear of his secret being discovered and the loss of his first love weighing him down. This film being two hours long however, means that there is ample time for a second love story. This time their love is based purely on passion and eroticism. Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves) is a mere servant who awakens Maurice's sexual desire. While Durham was his intellectual equal, he kept their relationship on a purely platonic level as he feared that anything more would lower them somehow. Scudder represents the exact opposite and so in the thrown of passions they chose to give up everything and make a life together.

The idealistic ending, while cathartic and beautiful, was somewhat clumsily executed. Although there was definitely more than enough time, the love story between Scudder and Maurice was not realistically developed and their complete commitment to each other felt rushed into. This might have a lot to do with Scudder's character development, and the jarring way he was presented as a dimensionless member of the underclass. Personally, this left a bitter aftertaste at the end of the film, slightly offsetting the euphoric idealism of the final act.

The real beauty of this film lies in the small details, the little moments that aroused chuckles in the cinema audience, such as when Maurice's sisters bandage up the befuddled Durham to practice first aid for the war. The score and idyllic period scenery are all consuming, and the audience is not just taken in to the story but into the entire mood of the piece. It is clear where Luca Guadagnino got some of his inspiration for Call Me By Your Name, a project that James Ivory co-wrote. Although it has to be a lot more restrained than its counterpart, Maurice is a classic which was way ahead of its time in its depiction of honest and tender love.

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1 Comment

Claire Posted on Monday 30 Jul 2018

The names are JAMES Ivory, and ALEC (not 'Alex') SCUDDER (not 'Scudders').

The film's generations of fans certainly don't respond to Alec as 'a dimensionless member of the underclass' or a 'mere' servant - quite the opposite! Alec is undoubtedly a favourite character, and Rupert Graves gives a wonderful performance (which has been called 'genuinely feral' and 'driven, obsessed, dangerous and boldly passionate').
Precisely because of Alec's place in the story and the necessary element of surprise and threat, it's easy to not fully 'get' his character and intentions at first viewing. I recommend rewatching.