30th anniversary restoration print
8633 Colesville Rd.
Silver Spring, Md.
Friday, June 23 at 2 p.m.
Saturday, June 24 at 11 a.m.
It’s been 30 years since ‘Maurice, the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of E.M. Forster’s posthumously published novel of gay love, made its theatrical debut. It’s been lovingly restored in a new 30th anniversary print that screens at the AFI Silver twice this weekend.
E.M. Forster (1879-1970) has long been acknowledged as one of Great Britain’s greatest writers. But he was largely the subject of academic study until the 1980s when film adaptations of his work made him a popular favorite.
David Lean’s opulent adaptation of his best-known work, “A Passage to India,” was a considerable success in 1984. It was followed in 1985 by Merchant-Ivory’s far more modestly scaled adaptation of “A Room with a View.” Merchant-Ivory’s next Forster step was “Maurice,” a love story of a far more intense stripe.
Originally written in 1914, then revised in 1932 and again in 1960, “Maurice” was shown by Forster only to select friends, including Christopher Isherwood, to whom he entrusted the manuscript. Forster, who died in 1971, wanted “Maurice” published after his passing. He didn’t believe it was possible for such a story to be released in his lifetime. And judging from the largely condescending reviews it received in 1972, it appeared he was right. “Maurice” is not only an “openly gay novel,” it’s an attack on the class from which he came and the literary culture that thought it knew him.
“Maurice” was greeted with snarky condescension except in gay political circles where it was heartily embraced.
Merchant-Ivory’s decision to create the film was a daring one. With James Wilby, Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves at the apex of their beauty, Merchant-Ivory were not pressed to be “sensational” in the mise en scene. “Maurice” isn’t “The Boys in the Band.” But it isn’t “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (its nearest gay “relative”) either. It’s a film that’s both of Edwardian England and 1987 at the same time.
Forster was exceedingly scrupulous in making his titular hero an intelligent, but in no way remarkable man. Obviously well-educated, Maurice (James Wilby) is not an intellectual or an aesthete “of the Oscar Wilde sort,” as he calls himself after first fully recognizing his gay desires. That isn’t clear to him right away. His love for fellow student Clive Durham (Hugh Grant) remains platonic, while edging close to the fully physical.
A scene in which his professor (Barry Forster) advises a student reading a classic text aloud to skip a passage concerning “the unspeakable vices of the Greeks,” sets up a confrontation with a fellow student (Mark Tandy) who has clearly given into them. When this same student is arrested for coming on to a Royal Guardsman (notorious in their history as hustlers for the rich and famous) and goes to prison for it much like Oscar Wilde, the example of his ruined life is all Clive needs to call off his affair with Maurice.
“What is to become of me,” Maurice cries when Clive tells him it’s all over (a deeply moving moment beautifully played by Wilby).
He gets his answer when Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves), the under-games-keeper at Clive’s estate, climbs through his bedroom window at night and makes love to him. For a gay man of that era, fearful of his own desires as much as the wrath of society, this is the ultimate sexual fantasy. Yet as”fantastic” as it might seem, Forster takes it quite seriously. Because of his love for Scudder, Maurice will not simply “get over” his tortured semi-affair with Clive, he will turn his back on British society and, as Mark Twain would say “head off for the territory.”
Merchant-Ivory’s film reminds us that though he’s been dead for 46 years, E.M. Forster is still very much alive in us all.