Prizm News / April 23, 2018 / By David-Elijah Nahmod
The Merchant-Ivory film is still a beautiful portrayal of gay love.
Director: James Ivory
Cohen Media Group
By David-Elijah Nahmod
In celebration of its 30th anniversary, the classic gay romance “Maurice” returns to DVD and makes its Blu Ray debut.
It’s difficult, when viewing Maurice today, to realize how groundbreaking—even shocking—the film was in 1987. A tale of gay love lost and found in Edwardian England, the film was made 10 years before Ellen DeGeneres’ historic TV coming out. “Maurice” is based on the same-named novel written by E.M. Forster around 1913, the era in which the story is set.
Forster would not allow the book to be published during his lifetime, and so it was not published until 1971, the year after he died at age 91.
James Wilby stars as the titular character. While attending Cambridge University in 1909, he enters into a romantic, albeit platonic relationship with classmate Clive (Hugh Grant). Maurice wants their relationship to be sexual, but Clive refuses. A few years later, when one of their classmates is sentenced to six months in prison for trying to pick up a man in a bar, a terrified Clive ends their relationship.
The two men don’t speak for a year—until Maurice is invited to be an usher at Clive’s wedding to a woman. Against his better judgment, Maurice accepts.
Maurice finds himself battling his gay urges while at Clive’s palatial country home. One day he notices that Scudder, a young gamekeeper (Rupert Graves) is paying a great deal of attention to him. At first Maurice treats this servant with contempt, but late one night Scudder brazenly climbs into Maurice’s window.
“I know, sir,” Scudder whispers. “I know.” The two men then proceed to make love; it’s an unforgettable sequence.
Maurice was directed by James Ivory, who received his greatest fame with a trio of big-screen Forster adaptations. “A Room With a View” (1985) and “Howard’s End” (1993) were highly successful films, nominated for eight and nine Academy Awards, respectively.
Maurice could be considered Ivory’s coming out film. His producing partner, Ismail Merchant, was also his life partner for 44 years. Throughout their career the men worked with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; they were a trio that the “Guinness Book of World Records” cited as the longest partnership in independent film history, according to Wikipedia.
Ivory just won an Oscar for writing the screenplay to “Call Me By Your Name,” another superb gay romance. In his acceptance speech, the now 89-year-old Ivory remembered Merchant and Jhabvala, both of whom have passed on.
As with Ivory’s other Forster films, “Maurice” was lushly shot on location in England. The film’s elegant settings, period costumes and the stage-trained cast effectively capture the England of a century ago.
But most importantly, “Maurice” captures the beauty of gay love.
Maurice and Scudder might not seem like a well-matched couple: Scudder is a foul-mouthed servant, while Maurice is a “gentleman.” The attraction they feel for each other transcends class, though. They’re soulmates, unable to resist their intense need to be with each other, unable to do anything other than make personal sacrifices so they can be together.
“Maurice” also reminds us how difficult it was to be gay during past generations. In Maurice’s world being gay is a crime punishable by jail time. The portions of the film that deal with these issues are a sobering reminder of the horrible things currently being done to gay men in places like Chechnya, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Is “Maurice” one of the greatest gay films ever made? That would be up to each viewer to decide because “great” is a subjective term. But the film certainly is one of the best in the annals of Queer cinema. If you haven’t seen it, then please do.
David-Elijah Nahmod is a San Francisco-based writer whose eclectic career includes work for LGBTQ and Jewish publications as well as monster magazines. You can follow him on Twitter at @DavidElijahN and read his monthly film-review column at PrizmNews.com.