In 1987, Hugh Grant considered giving up acting. He had only appeared in one film, Privileged (1982), together with his friend James Wilby, and now he was focusing on review comedy. However, a casting director found him and sent him to director James Ivory, who had become a prominent name in Hollywood after the success of his Oscar-winning A Room with a View (1985). Grant was instantly cast in Ivory’s new film and his friendship with Wilby also helped getting the latter cast as the titular Maurice.
Grant recalls surprising his brother one day when he walked in on the two actors kissing. They were preparing for a film where they would be lovers. When Maurice premiered, homosexuality became a topic of contention.
A secret romance
In 1909, Cambridge student Maurice Hall (Wilby) becomes close friends with a wealthier young man, Clive Durham (Grant). One day, Clive tells Maurice that he has feelings for him. Maurice is startled… perhaps because it is the motivation he needs to realize that he’s also in love with Clive. They secretly embark on a romantic relationship, even after leaving Cambridge.
Then one day, reality comes crashing in. Their friend, Lord Risley (Mark Tandy), is arrested after soliciting sex from a soldier and sentenced to six month’s hard labor; obviously, the real punishment comes after that, when Risley has lost his social standing. Clive is terrified of being exposed as a homosexual and breaks up with Maurice. Perhaps marriage to a rich girl will ”heal” him. Maurice, on the other hand, doesn’t know what to do with his incriminating emotions…
Published after Forster’s death
For E.M. Forster to write a novel about homosexual love in Edwardian England was a daring thing to do, and he only showed it to trusted friends like Christopher Isherwood and Lytton Strachey. He knew that he couldn’t publish it as long as homosexuality was considered a crime in Britain; moreover, people in general wouldn’t stomach a positive portrait of that kind of love. Forster died in 1970 and the novel was published a year later. Contemporary critics’ general thoughts on the novel were largely negative – and so were those of British film critics when the adaptation premiered in 1987. Their arguments are… interesting. The literary critics of 1971 seemed to mind that the novel dealt with homosexuality in such a direct way; they also disliked the happy ending for Maurice, calling it ”artistically wrong”. The same lack of maturity was evident among the film critics of 1987, some of whom thought it was wrong to depict homosexual passion in the middle of an AIDS crisis. Ivory, who’s gay himself, could only see fear and self-loathing among those (also gay) writers, and perhaps he had a point.
Both the novel and the film were ahead of their times. Ivory and his collaborators portray gay love in an adult, believable and emotional way. The director’s American background helps him put the class perspective front and center of the story, as we see these young upper-class gentlemen learn exactly what they have to lose if they are not careful, but also how passion and love can’t be hindered by artificial barriers such as a false moral code of a specific era or culture.
Composer Richard Robbins is at the peak of his game and the other trusted members of Ivory’s team also add immeasurably to a beautiful film that has great historical value but also the kind of burning passion underneath starched collars that makes it resonate with audiences. A superb cast is icing on the cake, including Grant’s breakthrough.
Maurice 1987-U.K. 140 min. Color. Produced by Ismail Merchant. Directed by James Ivory. Screenplay: Kit Hesketh-Harvey, James Ivory. Novel: E.M. Forster. Cinematography: Pierre Lhomme. Music: Richard Robbins. Costume Design: Jenny Beavan, John Bright. Cast: James Wilby (Maurice Hall), Hugh Grant (Clive Durham), Rupert Graves (Alec Scudder), Denholm Elliott, Simon Callow, Billie Whitelaw… Ben Kingsley. Cameo: Helena Bonham Carter.
Trivia: Julian Sands and John Malkovich were initially considered for leading roles.
Venice: Silver Lion, Best Actor (Wilby and Grant), Score.
Last word: “I think [gay British critics] felt that if they praised it, they were, in some kind of way, revealing their hand. And they couldn’t, or shouldn’t. I think that’s really why they had that sort of mealy-mouthed response to it. They were frightened that they would be exposed personally. […] It came right on the heels of A Room With A View. And that was such an enormous success, so I think people were hoping that Maurice would also have that kind of success. It didn’t. But certainly nobody was out there bothering us about it in any kind of way or threatening anything or refusing to show or distribute it.” (Ivory, The Independent)