The persistent genre of British heritage romance is one that has been historically characterised as conservative, particularly in terms of sexuality, and I think this assumption is both fair and understandable. TV shows like Downton Abbey and adaptations like Pride and Prejudice glamourise the lives of the people highest in English society, all while keeping the more steamy elements under wraps. While movies like The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots have both recently bucked this trend, the films of Merchant Ivory had gotten there more subtly decades prior. This is notable in their most famous work, an adaptation of E.M. Forster's A Room With a View, which subtly criticizes the sexless etiquette of the Edwardian era, instead encouraging its protagonist to follow her desires, both romantically and sexually. However, in terms of presenting an unabashed, if not too graphic, look at sexuality in its most human terms, Maurice beats the latter by a mile, presenting an overtly sexual yet delicate and romantic gay relationship as early as 1987.
As can be assumed from the title, the film follows the upper-middle class Maurice Hall through the most significant points of his sexual awakening, opening with an impromptu sex education lesson from his teacher before skipping forward to his university days. At a sizeable two hours and twenty minutes, this intimate personal drama is sometimes at risk of taking the pace a little too slowly, but for the most part, the beauty and tension in Maurice keeps you interested. The deliberate yet easygoing structure also helps with this issue - though never meandering through the narrative, it's hard to tell exactly what will happen in Maurice's life, and this sense of mystery helps significantly with the emotional realism present in every character.
This is also a structure that allows the wonderful performances room to breathe and grow. The relatively unknown James Wilby brings a gleeful hope and naivety to Maurice's character; you never have the sense that he has given up hope, and there's always a hint of his earlier child-self present. Hugh Grant receives top billing on this Blu-ray for a role very early on in his career, that of Maurice's first love Clive Durham, and it feels as though he was designed in a lab somewhere for it. Though aware of his homosexuality, Grant's now well-established fumblings and fragility draped in cockiness is an excellent and subtle juxtaposition to Maurice's wide-eyed curiosity and confusion. Appearing later on in the story, a young Rupert Graves rounds out this trio wonderfully, lending his boyish appearance and inherent playfulness to the working class Alec, Maurice's answer to A Room With A View's George Emerson with a similar vitality and connection to the natural.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Merchant Ivory film without a beautiful mise-en-scène, and Maurice delivers as well as any other. Shot on location both at Cambridge and the English countryside, the high angle shots of the architecture of the former effectively symbolise how Maurice's sexuality is cloistered within him, while later, more expansive shots of the latter appear as he comes closer to acceptance and true happiness. I wouldn't usually think of myself as a stickler for historical accuracy either, but the costumes and set design, as well as James Ivory's script, do a magnificent job of transporting the viewer to the Edwardian era, adding a more palpable level of pressure to the potential consequences of Maurice's sexuality should he choose to reveal it.
For any fan of the film or of Merchant Ivory pictures in general, this Blu-ray boasts not only a beautiful high definition restoration but also a wide range of extras. From various documentaries with James Ivory and other people involved in the making of Maurice to newly recorded audio commentary by Professor Claire Monk, many hours of fascinating insights into the movie are provided with this purchase.
Whilst the past couple of years have given us films like Moonlight, Love, Simon, and Call Me By Your Name (also penned by Ivory), it is of the utmost importance to remember and respect the gay cinema that these recent works have built on. If nothing else, Maurice is bold: a bold and intimate piece of semi-autobiographical writing from Forster, a bold love letter to desire from professional and romantic partners Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, and a bold piece of cinema that has paved the way for many masterpieces since. The lead character embraces, kisses, and confesses his love to other men onscreen at a point in time when homosexuality, whilst legal, was far from accepted, the then-recent AIDS epidemic proving the bigotry and hatred that remained institutionally. As a radical act, presenting men in loving, sincere, romantic and sexual relationships could not have been more meaningful. On top of this, Maurice is a beautiful and profound film on its many other merits, and one that I can't recommend highly enough.