Before cinema there is the literary tool that is breaking ground with a light on controversy. Often the scope of the thought is for the author to bring attention towards things that are not being discussed on the surface. Sometimes the author pays the price for their convictions and is marked with a negative image in their time. Sometimes the author will earn a reward by his or her work being held up with respect generations later. E.M. Forster is an example in this instance.
Forster is a London author who wrote during the early twentieth century. His style was humanistic and he was pointing out flaws in the upper-class system of England at the time of his life. Five of his works were made into feature films: (1) A Passage To India  (2) Howard’s End  (3) A Room With A View  (4) Where Angels Fear To Tread (5) Maurice [written between 1913 and 1914, but published in 1971].
There are several important notes of movie history that connect the author to his films. James Ivory had adapted and directed three Forster novels to the screen in vivid color: (1) A Room With A View, in 1985 (2) Maurice, in 1987 (3) Howard’s End, in 1992. With his filmmaking sidekick (and real life romantic partner), producer Ismail Merchant, the production company known as Merchant Ivory Productions was born. All three films were box office hits. The company would later go on to put forth another successful period piece, The Remains of the Day (1993). Where Angels Fear To Tread was released in 1991; Charles Sturridge was the director and he went on to make the Gulliver’s Travels TV series in 1996. A Passage To India was released in 1984; David Lean was the director and he was best known for blockbuster films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965).
Ivory had a particular style in which the photography and cinematography would capture the ancient look of history. Costumes and lighting created a significant effect in bringing the Edwardian era of England (reigning from 1901 to 1910 of King Edward VII rule) to life. In his three films, Ivory had several actors star in more than once: Helena Bonham Carter, Rupert Graves and James Wilby. Maurice featured all three and was a challenging task to bring to life. In truth, Forster was a closeted homosexual who had composed the tale more than fifty years before it was released to the public. At the time in England when the author was writing, homosexuality was a crime punishable by time in prison. This went far beyond a matter of morality or social justice; this was a subject the elite establishment had made a law against. Forster knew the great risks around and was compelled not to bring his personal tale to the surface. However, all these years later, it is a poignant story available to the public and to the classroom. Many scholars regard it as a classic with a tender plot construction. All characters of the novel and real and relatable in presentation. Ivory treated the subject with care and created a film that remains as relevant and as visceral as it was when it was released to a confused but attentive audience. The story deals with a love story between two men that takes on complex proportions.
James Wilby is Maurice Hall, the lead character of the film. Maurice comes from privilege and his status has allowed him entrance into Cambridge for education. When the film opens up, Maurice is eleven and on the beach. His teacher is giving him a frank discussion on how the onset of puberty will be changing his life. The boy is left with a message that he has to keep his morality intact by refraining from any acts of sexuality before the proper age (and marriage). Given that the audience soon discovers that Maurice is gay, the context of this conversation takes on a deeper meaning of significance. Already the youth can see that his feelings are not to be talked about, much less approved of. In school, Maurice crosses path with two students: Lord Risley and Clive Durham (played by actor Hugh Grant). All are intellectual and focused on the philosophical studies detailed in the education. In one scene at school, a teacher instructs another student reading not to refer to the behavior of homosexuality as described by the Greeks. The expression Wilby gives Maurice in this moment is one of pain and sadness. Nobody can see it but the audience can: Maurice is gay and coming to terms with that.
Maurice and Clive start out as casual friends due to school. They spend time together by reading and singing with the piano. Love and intimacy burst to the surface in an unexpected way. The two find themselves in a romantic embrace in Clive’s dorm, but managed to separate before other friends arrive. Clive at first confesses his love and a shocked Maurice runs away. Then Maurice realizes the feelings are reciprocated and rushes back to declare his own heart. Both are equally afraid at the consequences of getting caught, but both take the risk to spend time together privately. However, Clive sets the boundaries directly in place. He wants to keep their affair platonic and non-sexual. He believes it would ruin the special quality that they have found. Maurice is secretly disappointed but goes along with it. Clive is more upper-class than Maurice, so he does not want to see the chances of his career tarnished.
Lord Risley is set up and caught by the police for an illicit encounter with another man. With Clive watching in the back of the court room, Risley is convicted for his actions and sentenced to some prison time with hard labor. Hugh Grant presents a haunted and painful expression as this takes place, and it reminds the audience of his internal struggle that is mirroring the challenge to so many homosexuals living at that time. He decides that he has to change the course of his life and break off his ties to Maurice. His beloved is devastated and that leads to a brief physical altercation. Maurice is quickly regretful and brought to tears wondering what he will do next. Clive flees to Greece and returns to England a seemingly changed man. He is more at ease in his sophisticated role, grown a mustache and taken on a rich wife named Anne.
Meanwhile, Maurice is unable to let go of his true identity. To him it is far more than who he sexually wants to share a bed with. His feelings are of love and he wanted to be able to share that with freedom and without shame. He becomes disgruntled and departs from Cambridge. His next move is to start a career as a stockbroker. In his own way, he is trying to set things right by being honest with himself. He goes to speak with a family friend and doctor named Dr. Barry (played by Denholm Elliott) and gives hints about his sexuality. Barry dismisses it all out of hand and Maurice understands that he will not be a source for help or comfort. In one of the most memorable sequences of Maurice, the gay man attends a therapy session of hypnosis where the doctor, Lasker-Jones (played with an eerie quality by renowned actor, Ben Kingsley), attempts to cure him of his ways. This was a common practice utilized at the time, and would go on to be in play for more years to come, until there was a recognition of homosexuality not being a mental illness by the scientific community.
Clive, in good faith, tries to aid his old love by integrating him more with society. He invites him up to his estate. His hope is that Maurice will shake off the homosexual impulses that he had by doing the same thing: finding a girl and getting married. Instead, the opposite of circumstances happens. Maurice is confronted with love all over again, but this time in a different form by a new person. Alec Scudder (played with a mysterious edge by Rupert Graves) is the gamekeeper on the scene. He meets Maurice and is immediately drawn to him. The attraction is clear as he watches him around the property. What is unclear is how Maurice himself feels. The man in many ways is still brooding over the rejection by Clive. A butler on the property, Simcox, figures out there is a past between Hall and Durham, so he gives clues to Scudder.
One night changes the course of everything in the film. Alec makes the bold move to sneak up to the bedroom of Maurice. It is raining and he climbs up a ladder and enters through the open window. Alec goes to kiss the shocked Maurice and the moment leads to a romantic encounter. Suddenly, a new chance at love and experience is presented to the haunted Maurice. What he is seeing is another type of love: where it is mutual by being comfortable and wanted on both sides. However, he still holds concerns and fears of his own. Alec goes to visit him at work and asks that they meet together at a boathouse on the Durham property. Maurice is uneasy and his conflicted emotions turn to fear. What he suspects is that the lower-class gamekeeper is blackmailing him because he declares in the same conversation that he knows about the past with Clive. As a result, the sensitive Maurice stands up Alec, who has arrived at the boathouse in genuine faith and is disappointed by the outcome.
Maurice returns to London and gets away from his past by leaving behind Clive and Alec. Undaunted and determined, Alec goes to the city and finds his conquest. He sets the record straight with his words and Maurice is surprised to realize it was not blackmail at all behind his amorous intentions. The man can see instead that Alec is doing all this because he loves him. They get together at a hotel room in secret and consummate their relationship with passion and with yearning. James Wilby and Rupert Graves deserve enormous credit in bringing to life scenes of homosexuality that are displayed with romantic care and gentle moments. The audience can see right away that this is not an attempt to prove or disprove a stereotype, but rather show another form of love in people.
The end of the film brings a dramatic yet hopeful conclusion. Alec is set to depart for Argentina, due to financial struggles. Maurice tries to surprise his new love, but is dismayed to discover that he is not at the port. He decides he needs to reconcile his past in a big way. He returns to visit with Clive and confesses everything about his story with Alec. Clive is aghast and lets out his disappointment that Maurice would not follow in his footsteps and make the same, safer choices. The two are able to make peace, but Maurice makes it clear that his emotions are real and not a game. He refuses to deny what he has found with Alec and wants to live up to the truth of his secret identity. Maurice goes to the boathouse looking for Alec and finds him there. The couple is overjoyed at being reunited because each was waiting for the other person to arrive. They kiss and decide to go forward together with a vow never to be separated.
Maurice earned success at the box office and has sustained staying power with the audience upon its release in the late 1980s. It did so in part because of a public awareness about gay and lesbian rights, not to mention the AIDS crisis spiraling out of control and impacting so many in those particular communities. People were learning the differences between belief and reality about the LGBT crowd. AIDS may have been a disease affecting the gay community, but it was not a specific gay issue because it was impacting other families across the board.
Fans of Forster and the film praised the content for its bravery and heart with visual construction. Viewers could believe in the love stories that Maurice shared and rooted for him throughout the sordid tale. All actors had found their careers recognized and improved in the film industry by highlighting another side to their talents. All look back on the piece with fondness and pride. The legacy of Forster lives on because something that was important and personal to him was able to be not only published but seen.
In the end, cinema is about individual interpretation and individual interest on the part of the viewer. He or she will have their own reasons for going to a film or avoiding it. Entertainment is the key in many ways for durability. The prominent highlight of a movie is being able to take somebody away from the cares of their own environment and transform them into another world to be a part of. This other world may or may not relate to them, but will make them identify a solid part of their humanity. Another form of entertainment is education. Social or other moral issues become crystallized in a national conversation by presenting slides to a situation. Maurice does just that with its presentation.
Director: James Ivory
Cast: James Wilby, Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves, Denholm Elliott, Ben Kingsley
Studio: Cinecom Pictures
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Brian’s Rating: 5-of-5 stars