by David Lamble
There's a moment in the movie version of gay author E.M. Forster's novel Maurice that still packs an emotional punch over a century after it was conceived. The title character, an easy-going if intellectually shallow stockbroker who has enjoyed an active gay life in the permissive precincts of Cambridge University, suddenly faces the brutal reality of being dumped by his snob of a boyfriend.
Maurice (pronounced Morris) Hall is dumbstruck when Clive Dunham informs him that he's ending their relationship in order to mate with an as-yet unknown female. In the scene, Maurice (a quietly powerful turn from then-newcomer James Wilby) collapses in tears before the unfeeling Clive. "What an ending! What an ending! What's going to happen to me? I'm done for!" Nervously backing out of the room, Clive urges Maurice to find himself a woman to marry. Maurice refuses, and the boys part. Maurice, abjectly miserable, is left to sublimate his desire by offering boxing lessons to slum kids.
A diffident man in Edwardian England runs the risk of losing status and even his freedom if he follows his heart in director James Ivory's elegant, erotically charged adaptation. Passion throbs beneath Maurice's placid surface, an ardor first unleashed through his platonic affair with upper-crust university classmate Clive (Hugh Grant). Desperate to be rid of his desires at a time when homosexuality is outlawed, Maurice seeks help from a physician (Denholm Elliott) and a hypnotherapist (Ben Kingsley). But when he meets Clive's handsome, roughhewn gamekeeper Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves), Maurice struggles to deny his own nature. The second of three Ivory Forster adaptations (with A Room with a View, 1985, and Howards End, 1992), Maurice is an erotically charged drama in which social propriety, even with its promise of lifelong unhappiness, exerts a pull on Maurice that is hard to resist.
The male leads are extraordinary. Wilby masterfully portrays Maurice's struggle to come to terms with his true nature. Grant, as the handsome but cowardly Clive, nails one of his first important roles, projecting the callow charm of an aspiring politician desperate to cling to convention. Graves is both ravishing and relentlessly direct as Maurice's ultimate romantic salvation, the cocky young gamekeeper Alec Scudder, refusing to bow to his social betters. Devotees of A Room with a View will also appreciate the return of a couple of skilled performers from the earlier film, including the openly gay actor/writer Simon Callow, who here triumphs as a fussy tutor who has a funny scene with a grade-school-age Maurice in the film's first-act prologue.
The film benefits hugely from great acting and perfect locations. The English countryside and Clive's storybook-beautiful estate shimmer under the patented Merchant/Ivory early-20th-century decor and costumes. Most importantly, Maurice is a great gay love story with a happy ending, a condition that Forster always insisted was the only reason for writing it, and why it was written in 1914 but not published until after his death in 1970.
Fans of Maurice are now twice blessed. First, with a 30th anniversary screening at the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival, part of a festival Tribute to Director James Ivory on Fri., April 14, 6 p.m. at SFMOMA, shown in a special 4K digital restoration overseen by Ivory and cinematographer Pierre Lhomme. Plus there's the Criterion Collection Maurice two-disc DVD set, available at Bay Area outlets like Amoeba Records. DVD features: Disc 1 presents the film in a new high-definition digital transfer, enhanced for widescreen television. Disc 2 features chats conducted between 2002-04 with filmmaking partners Ismail Merchant and James Ivory and their associate Richard Robbins; The Story of Maurice, with screenwriter Kit Hesketh-Harvey and cast members James Wilby, Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves; over 30 minutes of deleted and alternative scenes demonstrate just how uptight the Edwardians were about "the love that dare not speak its name"; and a reconstructed opening sequence, with optional commentary by Ivory.