Review by Stephen Snart
Posted on 15 September 2008
Source Film 4 DVD (R2)
The majority of British Cinema (particularly those made for export) can easily be reduced to one of two categories: heritage cinema and kitchen sink social realism. If it’s exquisitely shot, lavishly designed, set in the past or an idealized version of the present and concerns the middle or upper class, it’s classified as heritage cinema; if it’s gritty, urban, concerned with the working class and more often than not deeply depressing, it’s considered social realism. Heritage cinema foregrounds shots of steam trains and grand estates, elegant scores, and episodic narratives adapted from a rich literary legacy. More simply put, any time you see a British film that includes a slow pan over a verdant green meadow, it’s safe to assume it’s an example of heritage cinema. These are the kind of films that make you subconsciously correct your posture during viewing. Maurice, a Merchant-Ivory production, is resolutely an example of British heritage cinema. But while it does reinforce British-ness and its ideal, it also offers one of the more frank and respectful depictions of homosexuality in 1980s cinema.
Based on a novel by E.M. Forster – originally written in 1913 but published posthumously in 1971 – the story is of a young man named Maurice living in pre-WWI England and the love affairs he has with two different men over the course of a decade. His first love is Clive, a fellow student at Cambridge. Clive is confident and intelligent (“Try reading it for the characters rather than the author, it’s much more interesting,” he advises a student struggling through Sophocles). He’s also forward about his love for Maurice and their courtship is nurtured steadily and cautiously: punting along the River Cam, practicing piano, bringing each other to their respective family estates and politely warding off advances from nubile sisters.
But when a friend from university gets arrested for practicing homosexuality in public – or ‘immorality’ as the papers call it – Clive rethinks their relationship. He suppresses his youthful passion and approaches Maurice pragmatically: “Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we could just marry women?” And so Clive does. But Maurice isn’t able to redress his sexual orientation to fit society’s standards so easily, despite visits to a therapist. After a period of pining and restlessness, he strikes a fiercely passionate relationship with Scudder, the gamekeeper at Clive’s estate. As their relationship defies not only sexual boundaries but also class, their courtship is tempestuous and filled with misunderstanding, yet their attraction is insistent and unlike Clive’s—ultimately insuppressible.
Part of Maurice’s relevance is that it reminds the viewer that there was such a time when a declaration of homosexual love was grounds for imprisonment. In modern London, where government-approved billboards and banners on the tube proclaim: “[Some People are Gay. Get Over it!] (http://www.stonewall.org.uk/education_for_all/news/current_news/2043.asp)”, it can be easily forgotten that the act of homosexuality was illegal in the UK until as recently as 1967. However, the degree of Maurice’s commitment to social relevance has been questioned by its reputation as a product of British heritage cinema. Film historian Andrew Higson questions how a film like Maurice can purport to be a critique of social inequalities when the visualizations of the oppressive social regime are so exquisite. He argues that the beauty of the image contradicts any narrative critique and conversely, enforces a fondness and admiration for the hegemony of a ruling upper class.1
His argument is convincing, and on the whole quite astute I would say, but it seems unfair to clump Maurice into the mix. While it is guilty of occasionally bathing in the visual splendor of the rural estate (but come on, it is undeniably beautiful on a material level; even if the ideology it symbolizes is ugly), the counter argument to Higson is that by packaging the story in an aesthetic palatable to the upper class, it increases the possibility of its subject getting heard by the members of such classes whose prejudice may be disarmed by the familiarity of appearance. Further to Maurice’s credit is that it presents the depiction of homosexuality to the spectator not with fierce confrontation but with placid self-confidence.
It seems especially unfair to chide Maurice when compared to a film so devoutly committed to British heritage as Julian Jarrold’s recent take on Brideshead Revisited; where the sublimated heterosexuality of Evelyn Waugh’s novel is made explicit but then rendered merely a dalliance by the dominant heterosexual relationship that follows. Besides, how blindly pro-British can Maurice be if it features Ben Kingsley delivering the line, “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”
One of Higson’s particular complaints about Maurice is that Clive is presented as a more appealing character than the titular one.2 This is a valid point, especially from today’s standards, if for no reason other than Grant’s star power in comparison to Wilby’s anonymity outside of the UK. But where I disagree with Higson is his implication that the film presents Clive as horrified by his homosexuality. In the film’s last shot, in which Clive, portrayed by Hugh Grant, gazes out his bedroom window and envisions a memory of Maurice from their Cambridge days, I see a nagging sense of yearning and self-doubt in Grant’s expression that is not accounted for by Higson.
The ending of the film can be read two ways. By ending with Maurice and Scudder giving up everything to be together, the conclusion reinforces the fantasy of the heritage film by not addressing the social implications of their decision. But then it also affirms the film’s allegiance to the theme of following one’s heart in spite of social ridicule by choosing Clive’s unsteady gaze as its last image. Either way, the filmmakers’ decision not to show the outcome of Maurice and Scudder’s union (one version of Forster’s novel contains an epilogue with the two living outside of society as woodcutters) is certainly more romantic than sober-minded. Even if they can survive ostracization, the frenzy of their hot-and-cold attraction is less than convincing that their relationship can prosper on its own terms.
The explicitness of the sexuality and the multiple instances of full frontal male nudity is startling for a studio released film from twenty years ago. Aside from Kiss of the Spiderwoman and My Beautiful Launderette, it’s difficult to recall a contemporary equivalent that wasn’t made by Andy Warhol or a similar figure of the underground. After all, The Crying Game was still five years away. More to this point, the gay pop culture cognoscenti at afterelton.com recently assigned Maurice number 5 on their list of the fifty greatest gay movies—and it’s the only pre-1990 movie in their top ten.
Of course, Maurice is by no means a perfect film – Scudder is introduced in the narrative too late, social class is swept under the rug too neatly and Wilby is every bit as disengaging as Higson says he is – but it is remarkably bold in its devotion to depicting the subject matter with grace and without compromise.