2 Hrs., 20 Mins.
Maurice January 31, 2018
n the opening of Maurice (1987), Merchant-Ivory’s follow-up to the much-acclaimed A Room with a View (1985), we are transported to the shores of a cold English beach, presumably for the sake of a field trip. There, we find a teacher taking on the role of a sort of quasi-father figure to his fatherless, 11-year-old student Maurice. He decides then and there to give the classic birds-and-the-bees talk. The instructor is descriptive and blunt; he even draws a diagram in the wet sand to better illuminate the topic. But what stands out the most to the boy is the part in this semi-monologue in which his teacher warns that Maurice is just a few years away from puberty. And that coming of age, he indirectly says,
will come with sexual feelings. How he handles them is a different story.
This scene lingers in the memory long after it finishes, in part, because of the movie’s subject matter. Set in early-20th-century England and spanning about a decade, Maurice revolves around its eponymous protagonist’s (James Wilby) coming to terms with his homosexuality. The sequence is so haunting because little Maurice is so unaware of the lifetime of hardship waiting ahead; he still doesn’t know that his soon-to-be sexual preferences are outlawed, and, if discovered, will effectively banish him from British society.
Maurice watches its title character navigate his ever-difficult life, trying to distract himself from his otherness and attempt to achieve success in the upper-crust world into which he was born. But most compelling about it is the two romances this young man has in his lifetime. There’s one with Clive (Hugh Grant), a fetching student he meets at Cambridge. And there’s another with Alec (Rupert Graves), a decidedly dimwitted-but-handsome under-gamekeeper.
These relationships signify Maurice’s changing attitudes toward his sexuality. Although Clive’s the one who makes the first move, he nonetheless ensures the years-long romance remain non-sexual and secretive. He thinks homosexuality is something which can be overcome, and through this relationship does Maurice take on a similar attitude of shame.
But then life happens and Maurice eventually ends up with Alec, who indulges his gayness and helps him bring his sexual fantasies to life.
By the movie’s end, we gather that neither one of these romances is particularly good for Maurice. Clive matches Maurice in intellect, but cannot entirely hand himself over. Alec provides Maurice with the sex life he’s always craved, but they don’t have much in common besides what they like to do to one another in bed.
Maurice’s success as a feature is questionable. While handsomely photographed and attentive toward beautiful period detail as any film residing in the Merchant-Ivory canon, it is also marginally rambly, unfocused. At 140 minutes, we cannot decide if we should principally be analyzing Maurice’s battle with himself or if we should be scrutinizing his romances with sensitivity. Because Wilby’s performance is so aloof, his inner turmoil is never quite so tangible; the passion driving the romances is similarly ever so slightly detached. (Clive and Maurice’s early days are palpably sensual, though.) And I didn’t buy the ending, which is supposed to be “happy” but more prominently feels false.
But the film does a lot of things well. It groundbreakingly renders homosexual romance compassionately and expressively, never falling victim to the usual tragedies seen in previous (though few and far between) gay-centric films. It’s also sensorially exquisite; we can practically feel the brittle weather nipping at our faces, the smoothness of the period clothing on our skin. And Grant, in one of his earliest roles, dishes out his instantaneously recognizable charm in such a way that hints at the great things to come. If only Maurice came together as overarchingly well as its individual components; perhaps we’d be in for a great movie rather than a simply good one. B-