Judge Bill Gibron and his pompatus of love review this Merchant-Ivory production.
"England has always been disinclined to accept human nature."—Hypnotist Lasker-Jones
While at Cambridge, Maurice Hall (James Wilby, Howard's End, Gosford Park) and Clive Durham (Hugh Grant, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral) fall in love. Homosexuality is incredibly illegal in turn-of-the-century Britain, so all inferences of their illicit personal involvement must be kept strictly secret. Even as they grow up and seek separate careers, their unspeakable devotion continues. That is, until another mate from college, Viscount Risley, is arrested for soliciting a soldier. Suddenly, Clive grows cold, believing his world of wealth and privilege will disintegrate before him if he continues the affair. Maurice can't imagine living without his lover.
When Clive gets married to protect his law practice and political ambitions, Maurice is devastated. He seeks the counsel of his family doctor (Denholm Elliott, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and a hypnotist (Ben Kingsley, Gandhi) to try and "cure" him of his homosexuality. Then Maurice meets a gamekeeper on Clive's estate, Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves, A Room with a View), and the attraction is instantaneous. But Alec is less concerned about keeping up appearances. He wants Maurice to abandon his upper-class life and be with him. Maurice may not be able to do that. It would mean embracing a social secret he has kept for far too long.
Maurice is a movie with a subject matter that barely speaks its name. Although the entire narrative deals with two Englishmen coming to terms with their homosexuality, only a strange American hypnotist (played with nice panache by Ben Kingsley) ever utters the forbidden word. The rest of the time, the notion of same-sex relations is given all manner of goofy mention, from a "sickness" to "the unspeakable vice of the Greeks." Maurice is, therefore, not really a movie about the gay experience in pre-World War II England. Instead, it is about the human desire to deny one's personal framework. Surrounded by a social order that forbids any act of individuality, the UK ideals of conformity and manners mandate that Maurice and his college chum Clive hide their needs. Not that there is much to observe. Clive only believes in a "platonic" relationship (based in the Athenian ideal), one in which love is vowed, but never allowed to "violate," to coin a phrase. The entire man-on-man angle therefore is explored in scenes of such static sensuality that elementary school children could find them perfectly appropriate. Everything about the repressed nature of Edwardian England taints the temperament of Maurice, making it less about scandal and more about incredibly strict sodomy laws. Indeed, E.M. Forster's posthumously published novel sidesteps carnal longings to focus on personal awakening, of coming to terms with one's own identity. The main message of Maurice is to be true to yourself and your feelings, to cast off the shackles of social acceptability and simply be who you are.
The only problem is that the movie based on such an ideology is rather weak in its support of such claims. Maurice himself seems constantly distraught, fighting his love for his old school friend while accepting his own animal lust for gamekeeper Alec. Honestly, James Wilby's performance is what really undersells the movie's meaning. His Maurice is a wide-eyed innocent who can't seem to disconnect his penis from his position long enough to understand the serious consequences of his actions. All he seems to want is sexual gratification and the return of romantic affection, never once moving beyond this basic instinct to realize some manner of connection, be it professional, physical, or emotional. On the other hand, Hugh Grant's insecure, weak-kneed Clive is pitch-perfect, personifying all manner of internal disarray in his shuffling, suave persona. Grant plays Clive as a scared, insecure pseudo-intellectual who rationalizes everything until it no longer has any feeling to it. His decision to accept a loveless marriage and maintain a "closeted" conscience is understandable, if not necessarily the most mentally healthy choice. Only Rupert Graves, as the rough tradesman Alec, instills his performance with any sexual passion (as may be the design here). He also finds the right tone during scenes in which we are unsure of Scudder's motives (blackmail? criminal accusation? a long-term commitment?) allowing a little bit of mystery into how this entire homosexual scenario will play out. Had the entire movie had Graves's grip on the requirements of telling this story with these characters, Maurice would be a fine, formidable film. But as it stands, it's just too prim and proper.
Stylistically, this movie meanders quite a bit. James Ivory loves to languish over scenes of little significance, hoping to round out a character or add a depth of tone to his circumstances. But sometimes this drags down the narrative drive. The near-bookend sequences with Simon Callow as a schoolteacher (he instructs a young Maurice in the "mysteries of sex," and sees him again near the end of the film) are very unnecessary, and as much fun as Kingsley's work is, his two scenes are simply padding, the non-Hippocratic hospice to Denholm Elliott's equally useless dithering medical man. As it stands, both families (the Halls and the Durhams) are underutilized, spending far too much time in the background as cinematic accessories. The character of Risley, the posh poof who is prosecuted for his actions, is really nothing more than a plot device. He has a couple of brief scenes near the start of the film, but is mostly forgotten until his arrest creates the sense of dread and doubt in Clive's mind. Given that Risley's actions turn the entire story arc, he should have had more impact. But this is part of the problem with Merchant/Ivory productions. Their stories are all couched in lavish recreations of the time and place in which they are set, but there is occasionally a desire to let the design supply the details.
Maurice is one of Merchant/Ivory's best-looking movies, a rich tapestry of fall colors cascading over old Baroque and Gothic architecture. The grounds surrounding Clive's home are awash in old English landscaping. Indeed, Maurice feels more like an outdoor film than an indoor experience, and the brilliant new transfer given the film by HVE compliments this concept stupendously. Maintaining the movie's unusual 1.79:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, there are times when the television screen resembles a work of watercolor art. The movie also sounds wonderful, the Dolby Digital Stereo highlighting Richard Robbins's lush score very well.
In association with Criterion, those creators of benchmark DVD packages, HVE has expanded Maurice into a two-disc set with a wealth of bonus material included on the second disc. We begin with an interview with director Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and composer Robbins, each providing insight into how this project came about. Ivory has the most screen time, and discusses his thoughts about the movie's gay theme as well as the power of his performers. Merchant has some funny stories about scouting college locations, and Robbins is amazed that he got to write the music for a book he loved for many years. Equally insightful are stars Wilby, Grant and Graves in the making-of documentary, The Story of Maurice. Each has aged in the 17 years since the movie was made, but all have vivid memories of the experience. It's great to hear a group of actors discuss their craft and their concerns with such openness and honesty. To round out the package, Ivory has uncovered 30 minutes of deleted/alternative scenes that show how Maurice might have looked in its original state. Gone is a prologue further explaining Risley's travails as one accused of buggery, several scenes of Maurice trying to seduce Dr. Barry's nephew Dickie, and a female romantic interest for our hero. Ivory supplies commentary over several of the sequences and discusses why they ended up on the cutting room floor.
After almost 100 years of supposed enlightenment, homosexuals are still treated with bias, disrespect, and outright prejudice from those who believe that their lifestyle is simply a choice to indulge in deviant behavior. Maurice proves that the longings of love know no gender, just pure emotional intensity. Too bad it can't make its point with more authority.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Conversations with the Filmmakers: Interview with Producer Ismail Merchant, Director James Ivory, and Composer Richard Robbins
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