If nothing else, “Maurice” has the British’s gift for not talking about what they’re talking about on full display. Being gay is referred to, famously, as “the unspeakable vice of the Greeks” by one character, and in other instances we hear a gay love affair referred to as a “muddle” or “messiness.” As Ben Kingsley, playing an American hypnotist, says in what may be E.M. Forster’s novel’s most quotable line, “England has always been discinclined to accept human nature.”
Merchant-Ivory’s wonderful 1987 adaptation of “Maurice” is now available in a restored 4K print on Blu-ray from Cohen Media, the latest in a string of terrific restorations of the longtime collaborations between producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory. (“Howard’s End” was released in the spring.)
“Maurice” may have been a bit of an odd choice for the filmmaking team as they were going through the Forster catalog – the novel, a rare “gay love story with a happy ending,” in Ivory’s description, remained unpublished until after Forster’s death in 1971, because of the firestorm it would create in Britain, where homosexuality was a crime until 1967.
Also Forster didn’t think it was very good, and his estate was initially reluctant to release the rights, fearing that if the movie tanked it would tarnish the other Forster properties it was looking to sell. But Merchant-Ivory had some clout after the success of “A Room with a View” and forged ahead. It turns out the estate was right at first; the world wasn’t ready for “Maurice” and it was largely ignored upon release. But it’s reputation has only grown; it remains a groundbreaking film and, despite the major advances made in gay rights in the past 30 years, a relevant one.
The movie opens in 1905 with an uncharacteristically whimsical scene of young Maurice getting an impromptu lesson in anatomy from a professor (Simon Callow), who scrawls anatomical drawings in the sand during a beach trip.
We next meet Maurice (James Wilby) in college, where he falls hard for classmate Clive Durham, played by an impossibly young Hugh Grant. The love scenes between the two are tender, not just because their passion is forbidden, because neither even know what being gay is supposed to be like – how to act or feel around each other.
Clive, fearing that he will be exposed and ruined if the relationship is found out, decisively ends the affair (in a neat reversal, he even goes to Greece, that home of unspeakable vices, to find a wife). Maurice is devastated, made to suffer in silence because he can’t reveal his love to anyone, full of self-loathing.
In the third act, Maurice falls for Clive’s gamekeeper, a boy named Scudder ( a really impossibly young Rupert Graves, now best known for playing Lestrade to Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Sherlock”). This reckless affair seems destined for disaster, with Scudder once threatening to blackmail Maurice.
But Forster and Ivory (who also scripted) give the audience the last thing we might expect – a happy ending, the lovers happily entwined. It’s the repressed, self-denying Clive’s story that is the real tragedy here, trapped in a polite but loveless marriage. The last image is of him firmly closing the shutters of his bedrooms, shutting out his feelings for all time.
The Blu-ray edition contains a number of special features, my favorite being an engaging conversation between Ivory and writer-director Tom McCarthy , whose 2015 film “Spotlight” won an Oscar for Best Picture. Perhaps even better would have been a chat between Ivory and Barry Jenkins, the director of last year’s Best Picture winner, “Moonlight.” The two films, both about gay men who struggle with their identities in cultures that they fear won’t accept them, would have a lot to talk about.