Why Maurice remains one of the great queer romances

James Ivory and Ismail Merchant’s stunning 1987 love story prizes sensuality over intellectualism.


Annie Jo Baker

In the 1980s and ’90s, film and life partners Ismail Merchant and James Ivory produced and directed three period dramas based on phenomenally successful novels by EM Forster. Of those films, which included A Room with a View and Howard’s End, 1987’s Maurice is probably the least well-known among mainstream audiences (among LGBT audiences it is a vital work of gay cinema, notably produced by gay men during the reactionary period of the AIDS crisis). However, its remastered release in 2017 coupled with Ivory’s Oscar-winning adapted screenplay for Call Me by Your Name (a film dripping with Ivory-isms) has brought renewed interest in this quiet work of art.

Forster’s novel was published posthumously in 1971. The British author was himself a closeted gay man; he passed away in 1970, shortly after the legalisation of homosexuality in the UK. Set in early 1910s England, the book tells the story of Maurice (James Wilby) his best friend Clive (Hugh Grant), the life they attempt to build together in London, which is ultimately destroyed by societal conventions, Maurice’s affair with a country estate gamekeeper, Alec (Rupert Graves), and what they subsequently sacrifice to stay together.

It’s your classic bait-and-switch love story, but adapted for film in the closest manner to perfect possible. The film is pure sensual agony, surpassing the similar but lusher (and more famous) Wilde from 1997, despite the latter’s phenomenal cast list: the nearly forgotten James Wilby has far greater on-screen chemistry with Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves than Stephen Fry with Michael Sheen and Jude Law.

In addition to his chemistry with his co-stars, James Wilby gives a masterclass in naturalistic screen acting. He shines as the title character, effortlessly holding our attention for the full two-hour runtime. Indeed, you hardly recognise that Wilby is acting at all – you perceive only a lonely, painfully well-educated but ultimately unintellectual, middle-class stockbroker, bound by the conventions of masculinity in pre-World War One Edwardian England. That sounds like a bygone archetype perhaps, but here it seems perfectly normal and authentic. It’s chilling and terrifying: his warm, gentle, genuine humanity in contrast to the robotic period drama mechanics.

In one scene, the night the rain comes through the parlor roof at the Durham estate, the others of the dinner party amuse themselves with cards or some other nondescript pastime, while Maurice sits to the side with just a cigarette. Only when Alec emerges from the outdoors, cap still in hand, to help move a piano, does Maurice come to life. He is very nearly alone in the world, but even so, rarely, you see bits of humanity slip through the tight, conservative Edwardian veneer – Ann Durham looking away from her own husband changing clothes, the butler Simcox and his bicycle and carefully balanced disapproval and subservience, the hesitance in the physical relationship between Alec and the maid – a story untold, the list goes on.

This is how the world is – lonely and hollow, until Maurice meets Alec. He’s poor and proud and class distinctions are important to him and he doesn’t ignore them even in his relationship with Maurice. Furthermore, he’s exceedingly intelligent, probably more so than anyone else in the movie, while remaining sensual and earthy. His element is the outdoors, and so he’s not bound by the Durham family’s old, creaky house, which he enters only to move the piano and on the night he goes to Maurice’s room (“I heard you callin’ to me, sir”).

Alec, a name Maurice only ever says with the greatest awe and reverence, is thinner and more feminine than him, with long, curly hair and skinny-legged pants. He is the late-’80s version of a queer Englishman in the early part of the 20th century. This mix of contradicting stereotypes creates bit-by-bit a real figure, the only person in the entire movie, in the entire at-least-slightly-anachronistic world of a period drama, who is fit for the everyman titular character.

One is educated and one is intelligent and neither are intellectual. They both forsake their careers, their families, their lives, everything, for the other, for an emotional sensuality set out of time and place. Forster himself, writing years after he initially drafted the novel, said that, “Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood.”

Published 8 Apr 2018

Tags: EM Forster Hugh Grant Ismail Merchant James Ivory

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