November 20, 2012

With A Room with a View, the stubbornly highbrow filmmaking team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory notched the biggest hit of their long association. For their follow-up movie, they might’ve played it safe and solidified their commercial success; instead, they’ve gambled a bit.

Maurice is, like Room, an adaptation of a novel by E.M. Forster, and also recreates a lush time in Edwardian England. But Maurice—pronounced “Morris”—departs from Room by focusing entirely on the story of a homosexual personality. Forster himself was so anxious about the novel’s subject matter that he never published it; the book finally appeared posthumously.

The film, after a hilarious prologue in which an adolescent Maurice is given a sex lecture drawn in the sand by a teacher, takes Maurice (James Wilby) from his university days, where he and a fellow classmate, Clive (Hugh Grant), experiment in illicit love. As they grow older, Clive becomes interested in a political career, and he begins to see the advantage in renouncing his past.

Maurice, however, can’t deny his inclination, though he seeks explanation and advice from various unsympathetic sources. At one point he desperately solicits help from an American hypnotist (deadly funny cameo by Ben Kingsley), who assures Maurice that carrying around a gun might enhance feelings of masculinity. Maurice ends up finding some measure of happiness with a stableboy (Rupert Graves).

At about two-and-a-half hours, Maurice every so occasionally loses its momentum. And it’s certainly not as much sheer fun as A Room with a View, the movie that brought a new sprightliness to Merchant-Ivory films.

However, the movie unfolds like a rich period novel. Any Anglophile who enjoys disappearing into the likes of Brideshead Revisited will find much to savor here.

This time out, Ivory himself wrote the screenplay, in collaboration with Kit Hesketh-Harvey. Ivory’s direction is perhaps his most sensitive ever. Aside from the obvious physical beauty of the period setting, he builds careful visual motifs around certain objects; the recurring use of windows to signal important turning points, for instance.

And Ivory has a superb cast. The leading roles of Maurice and Clive, while perfectly acted by Wilby and Grant, are ever so slightly colorless. I think Ivory realizes this, and so he’s put some very tasty British actors in the supporting roles, including Kingsley, Billie Whitelaw, and the ever-ripe Simon Callow.

Denholm Elliott, fresh from an Oscar nomination for A Room with a View, turns up as Maurice’s elder, who attempts to convince Maurice that all is normal by examining Maurice’s working parts and pronouncing them functional. Maurice insists he has a problem; Elliott chirps back, “Oh, we’ll fix that!” He can’t, but in the end Maurice is the story of a man who comes to terms with something he can’t fix.

First published in the Herald, November 12, 1987

A pretty good example of Merchant Ivory in their mode, if I remember correctly. Grant, Wilby and Graves have represented their generation pretty well since then.