This review contains some plot spoilers.
”England has always been disinclined to accept human nature” – E.M. Forster
1909. Maurice Hall (James Wilby) is an undergraduate at Kings College, Cambridge. While there, he meets and falls in love with Clive Durham (Hugh Grant). Although they are very close, and continue to be so after University, their love is never consummated. But then Clive, scared by the arrest on an immorality charge of a University friend who later commits suicide, breaks off their relationship, leaving Maurice devastated….
E.M. Forster wrote Maurice around 1914 but due to concerns about the acceptability of its subject matter, he didn’t let it be published until after his death. The novel finally appeared in 1971. It’s usually considered one of his weaker novels, but as is often the way, the lesser novel makes for a better film. In my mind it’s the best of the three films Merchant Ivory made from Forster’s work, and one of their best films overall.
Why is this? There’s a case to be made that Forster as a novelist was crippled by his own sexual orientation, to which he never adjusted. (And let’s not forget that male homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967, leaving gay men open to blackmail and long prison sentences, not to mention possible Oscar Wilde-like public disgrace.) Maurice was clearly a very personal work, to which he rather sentimentally gave a happy ending. As Merchant and Ivory are a gay couple of long standing, you can see how this would appeal to them. I’m not sure if Ivory is correct in claiming that this film was the first unapologetic gay love story (complete with brief full-frontal male nudity), with his hero not suicidal at the end but happily in a relationship with gamekeeper Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves), one that cuts across class barriers as well as sexual ones. But it’s certainly an early example of such a film. It’s hard to imagine Merchant Ivory as radical filmmakers, but just this once, in their oh-so-discreet and polite way, they may have slipped something subversive past their audience. Seventeen years later – and I speak as someone who saw Maurice on its cinema release – it may be hard to realise what the fuss was about. But back in 1987, the AIDS epidemic was only six years old, and as Ivory says if Maurice had been made very much earlier it might have attracted more condemnation than it did.
Many Merchant Ivory films are full of surface pleasures: sumptuous costume and production design and camerawork, making a relatively small budget seem much larger, not to mention literate dialogue and fine performances from some very distinguished actors. But what is often missing is passion: you don’t sense an overwhelming urge to make this film rather than something else. That isn’t the case with Maurice though, which is constantly engaging and in places quite moving if a little overlong. Merchant Ivory’s usual scriptwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was committed to a novel at the time and didn’t feel comfortable with the subject matter, so the screenplay is the work of Kit Hesketh-Harvey (of cabaret act Kit and the Widow) and Ivory. As Hesketh-Harvey admits, much of the dialogue comes straight from the book.
Apart from the central three (and Graves doesn’t appear until after the halfway mark), most of the roles are little more than adroitly-played cameos. (Helena Bonham Carter turns up uncredited as a spectator at a cricket match.) Although Wilby and Graves are excellent, it’s Hugh Grant’s Clive on which the film turns. Grant has played the silly-ass dithering Englishman a few too many times in Four Weddings and a Funeral and its follow-ups, so it’s easy to forget how good an actor he can be. Clive is one of his best roles, along with another gay role in the little-seen An Awfully Big Adventure. Clive’s platonic love for Maurice dominates the first half of the film and it’s Clive’s crisis of conscience which causes the key event in the film, when he rejects Maurice. Although we see Maurice leave for a hopefully happy future as a gay man, we end the film with Clive. As he gazes out of a window, the camera looks in at him, his wife Anne (a deft performance of uncloying sweetness from Phoebe Nicholls, an actress much underused by the British Film Industry) clearly in love with him but he will never be able to reciprocate, the frame of the window like the bars of a prison of his own making,
Maurice is released as part of Odyssey’s 20-film Merchant Ivory Collection. It is available on its own, as part of the six-film digistack Connoisseur Collection (along with Autobiography of a Princess, Howards End, Hullaballoo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures, Quartet and Savages) and as part of a 20-film box set of the entire collection. Many of the Collection are encoded for all regions; Maurice is an exception in being encoded for Region 2 only.
Due to the film’s two-and-a-quarter-hour length, Maurice is released as a two-disc set, with one DVD-9 disc containing the film and another DVD-9 the extras. The transfer is anamorphic, in the ratio of 16:9. It’s generally a very good transfer, though skin tones are a little overripe, there’s a little grain and darker scenes are somewhat lacking in shadow detail. There is some minor aliasing and artefacting, though nothing too untoward.
There is a choice of two soundtracks: an analogue Dolby Surround track (the default option), which replicates that of the original cinema release, and a remix in Dolby Digital 5.1. There’s not a great deal to choose between them, though for some reason the 5.1 track is mixed much more quietly than the 2.0. The surrounds are used mostly for Richard Robbins’s score, though there are some directional effects now and again. The subwoofer gets very little use, but one example are the gunshots at the beginning of Chapter 10. There are no subtitles, which is very regrettable. Fifteen chapter stops are hardly adequate for a film of this length.
The menu on the extras disc begins with “About the film”, two pages of critics’ quotes followed by eight of production notes. “Cast and Crew” is simply a two-page text listing. You might as well watch the credits of the film itself. Biographies are of Wilby, Grant, Graves, Denholm Elliott and Ben Kingsley, updated to 2003/4. The “trailers” section includes trailers for Savages, The Deceivers and Quartet as well as Maurice. itself. There’s a 12:58 interview with Ivory, who describes what attracted him to the project and his approach to its adaptation. Richard Robbins also contributes a discussion of his score.
The deleted scenes (which run 39:01) are more thorough than most such extras. Ivory, in an optional commentary, describes how the film was quite differently constructed to the way it is now. In the original script, what is now the first hour of the film was told in flashback. The deleted scenes, which are topped and tailed by the ends and beginnings of scenes which remain, were mostly removed to take the film down to its current length. The deleted material is a little dark and contrasty, with several scratches and splices, but certainly watchable enough.
“The Story of Maurice” is another series of interviews (running 30:27). It does overlap with the previous interview on the disc, and perhaps the two could have been combined. Interviewees include Kit Hesketh-Harvey, Hugh Grant, James Wilby and Rupert Graves. Finally, there's a promo reel for the Merchant Ivory Collection (15:43), 58:19 of extracts from the films and 21:38 of extras from their extras. You have to wonder if most of this had been cut then the two-disc set could have become a singleton, especially as the film disc only takes up 5 megabytes.
Maurice is one of Merchant Ivory’s best films and its presented in a generally good transfer with some substantial extras.