Last year, Merchant Ivory’s Howards End, now a quarter of a century
old, got a 4K digital restoration that didn’t seem obviously required.
Until, that is, you saw the result. Those ornate Edwardian interiors,
the sea of rain-spattered umbrellas, that field of bluebells, all made
newly sharp and iridescent – it seemed appropriate treatment for what
stands as the quintessential work from a film-making team now synonymous
with elegantly reserved costume drama. With US distributor Cohen Media
Group having bought up the Merchant Ivory library, one might have
assumed A Room With a View would be next in line for this pristine
treatment. The Remains of the Day, perhaps.
Instead, we’ve been thrown a curveball. Maurice, undervalued in 1987
and underseen today, is getting the digital makeover, hitting cinema
screens in time for its 30th anniversary. It’s a surprise, but a welcome
one. Adapted from a posthumously published EM Forster novel that is
likewise overshadowed in reputation by other works in his canon – like,
well, Howards End and A Room With a View – Merchant Ivory’s film opened
hot on the heels of their broadly beloved, Oscar-garlanded adaptation of
the latter. Almost immediately, it was filed away as, if not a
disappointment, a lesser diversion. The Venice film festival jury was
highly taken with it, handing prizes to James Ivory and then-fresh-faced
stars Hugh Grant
and James Wilby, but despite admiring reviews, few followed their lead.
Box office was barely a 10th of A Room With a View’s; where that film
had been nominated for eight Oscars, winning three, Maurice scraped a
solitary bid for its costumes.
The film wasn’t at fault. A tender, graceful love story, performed
with quiet emotional conviction and crafted with Merchant Ivory’s
signature visual serenity and meticulous period detail, it was an
exemplary distillation of its literary source – and a heartily realised
passion project for Ivory himself, who adapted Forster’s novel in place
of the team’s usual screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. What was
different? Those even glancingly acquainted with the film or novel can
probably work it out: Maurice was, put bluntly, too gay.
Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant were romantic partners as well as
professional ones, though their films rarely reflected their sexuality
in anything more than an oblique sense. Many of their greatest films
evoke a sense of unspoken desire, of any persuasion, simmering beneath a
placid surface of decorum – a repression with which many a gay person,
unable always to freely articulate their romantic self, has been able to
empathise. Maurice, in a sense, was the duo’s cinematic coming-out: the
story of a young man growing into his homosexuality in politely hostile
English society, it’s a film that exquisitely queers the
stiff-upper-lip emotions so central to the Merchant Ivory oeuvre.
There’s a slight aloofness to Maurice that is part of its beauty.
Shooting with glacial reserve, a minty chill present even in scenes of
the great English summer, Ivory languidly explores the stuffy Cambridge
social circuit, with its cricket matches and country-pile parties, that
the title character is expected to inhabit; Wilby’s painstaking
performance, too, initially comes over as glazed, absent, a man in
search of something to want. The film only breathes when he finally
does, first via a frustrating romantic affair with fellow student and
social climber Clive Durham (Grant, perfectly his floppy charm years
before Four Weddings and a Funeral) – but it’s heartbreak that gives the
film its red-blooded feeling.
From there, as a second romantic chapter with gamekeeper Alec Scudder
(Rupert Graves, completing perhaps the prettiest posh-boy triangle in
screen history) begins, Maurice gains both in emotional sweep and
intimate psychological detail: a tame entry it may be in the LGBT canon,
but few films have expressed quite so sweetly and nakedly the
challenges of simply being a gay man, partnered or otherwise – how difficult it can be to run with human nature.
This is not emotionally universal terrain, and was a rare subject for
prestige heritage cinema to take on: the film’s respectful but
dispassionate reception in 1987, not an era rich with queer art in the
mainstream, is no surprise in retrospect. Had Forster, for whom the
novel also represented a cathartic release of his own sexuality,
published it in his lifetime, he might have encountered similar
resistance. In 1971, Maurice was received by the literary fraternity as
minor by his standards – a verdict that all too often plagues depictions
of desire that, while far from minor, is shared only by a minority.
Fast-forward to 2017, in the midst of a thriving LGBT cinema scene
and in afterglow of Moonlight’s barrier-busting Oscar triumph, and
perhaps audiences will be a little warmer, a little kinder to Maurice.
Coincidentally, it hits screens again in the same year that Ivory is
basking in the glory of a very different LGBT triumph: now 88, he’s a
co-writer on Luca Guadagnino’s queer coming-of-age rhapsody Call Me By
Your Name, a Sundance sensation that realises the first rush of gay love
with all the woozy sensual excess that Maurice, true to its period,
eschews. (They’d make for a remarkable, mutually flattering double
bill.) Far from dated, Merchant Ivory’s Maurice looks positively ahead
of its time: an honestly strait-laced depiction of alternative sexuality
that dared to play by the same rules as any other respectable costume