Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Film Version of "Maurice": Second in the Forster Trilogy

Preface: A few weeks ago when our Border's bookstore had its store-closing sale, I picked up a 2-DVD version of "A Room With A View", owing to a renewed interest in the work of Helena Bonham-Carter.  This was the film that first introduced me to her.   After I watched it again, and reviewed it here recently, I was motivated to have a look at the Ismael Merchant-James Ivory-Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala trilogy of films based on E. M. Forster novels.  In 1987, a year after "A Room With A View" was received with critical and popular acclaim, the team filmed Forster's controversial "Maurice", and in 1992, they released hugely successful film version of "Howard's End".

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There is speculation that the novel "A Room With A View" was Forster's veiled story of a homosexual man who defied a traditional arranged engagement with a woman, and found love in the arms of the man who stirred his passion.  When Forster completed his novel "Maurice", an honest account of homosexual attraction in 1920's England, he deemed it too dangerous to publish in his lifetime, owing to harsh public and legal attitudes toward homosexuality.  The book was finally published in 1971 after Forster's death.

Maurice (James Wilby) and Clive (Hugh Grant) form an intense attachment while they are students at Cambridge, circa 1917.  Maurice wants a genuine romantic coupling with Clive, who at first encourages Maurice's impulses and tries to break through his defenses.  But Clive soon recognizes the threat to his own person and his position in a society in which homosexuality is scorned and criminalized.  Clive marries a woman and lives an unhappy charade, while Maurice, heartbroken, soon becomes fascinated with Clive's groundskeeper, Eric Scudder.  In spite of their class differences, Maurice and Scudder share an intense and fulfilling physical relationship, with the suggestion that they will find their way together in a hostile world.

The film version is typically sumptuous, intelligent, and passionate.  Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala's screen adaptation of the novel is faithful to the ominous undercurrents of the story, while fleshing out the characters and their motivations.  There is not one uninteresting line of dialog in the whole piece.  Although I might have tightened the scenes involving Ben Kingsley as an unscrupulous hypnotist, he does deliver one of the film's best lines from the novel:  "England has always been disinclined to accept human nature." James Ivory's direction is well-observed and sympathetic.  As a gay man, Ivory was especially sensitive to the emotional subtelties of each character.   

However, the film version of "Maurice" was not as popular as the other two films in the trilogy.  Even in the 1980's, audiences were squeamish about forthright portrayals of gay romance.  Also, the film was released during the developing AIDS panic, so the timing was unfortunate for a gay-themed film that did not deal with the epidemic.  A story about society's oppression and one man's rebellion against the forces that sought to keep him in the closet was not deemed relevant.

It's a more demanding film than "Room With A View", too, and not as warm.  Even so, the adaptation of Forster's work was once again expertly handled.  As a portrayal of a society in which it is dangerous for gay people to live openly and honestly, the film is both a cautionary tale, completely relevant to our current divisive and regressive political hate-mongering; and a model of the triumph of honest love against innuendo and ignorance. 

Special mention should be made of the three top-billed performers here.  James Wilby exudes tentativeness and playfulness equally well.  While he sometimes overdoes the stiff-upper-lip, he nevertheless ages convincingly as his character gradually finds the courage to follow his desire.  Hugh Grant is surprisingly good in the early Cambridge scenes, and reminds us how charming and intelligent a screen presence he was before selling out to generic romantic comedies.  And Rupert Graves is darker here (both physically and emotionally) as the brutish, earthy groundskeeper.  Graves does a complete turnaround from his silly, playful Freddy in "Room..." and his acting seems richer, his screen persona dangerously appealing. 

(By the way, Helena Bonham-Carter makes a cameo appearance in this film during the cricket-match scene.  She is the only actor to make an appearance in all three films of the trilogy, and is a nicely appropriate on-screen thread that ties the films together.)

Forster's novels were perfect material for the talents of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team: intelligent stories about love, self-discovery, self-deception, told with humor and intelligence in gorgeous surroundings.  "Maurice" is a surprising and mature transition between the satiric and gentle romance of "Room With A View" and the stunning, penetrating look at class barriers to love and friendship of their masterpiece "Howards End".   

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Postscript: I miss this filmmaking trio (Ismael Merchant died in 2005).  Their films were unmatched in visual splendor (with impossibly small budgets), intelligence, and identifiable characters.  Director Tom Hooper had been criticized for making a career out of period-piece, costume-drama "award bait" (John Adams", "King's Speech", and the new film musical "Les Miserables").  Maybe if Hooper teamed up consistently with the right producer and screenwriter, he might help fill the void left by this brilliant team of artists.


  1. Just discovered your blog as I was researching the film Maurice for mine. Really enjoyed your post and the stills from the film!