Saturday, October 18, 2014

Maurice (1987)

Director: James Ivory                                        Writers: Kit Hesketh-Harvey & James Ivory
Film Score: Richard Robbins                            Cinematography: Pierre Lhomme
Starring: James Wilby, Hugh Grant, Denholm Elliott and Rupert Graves

Though Merchant-Ivory Productions had been in existence since 1961 when Indian producer Ismael Merchant teamed up with American director James Ivory to produce English-speaking Indian films for the international market, they didn’t really achieve their greatest success until the 1980s when they began filming British stories by Henry James and E.M. Forster. Henry James’ The Bostonians was their first big hit and they followed that up with their most popular film A Room with a View, which was based on the novel by E.M. Forster. For their next film they continued with Forster’s most controversial story Maurice. The novel was about a same-sex relationship between men he knew at Cambridge, and Forster refused to have it published during his lifetime because his perception of the subject matter is that it would be so controversial it could only affect his career and book sales in a negative way. The book only made it’s way to the public in 1971, the year after his death. Despite the film’s critical success, it did not attain the popular success that other films by the production team were able to achieve in the early nineties like Howard’s End.

The film begins with the young Orlando Wells as the title character. He’s leaving his private boarding school to go to a public one, and as he has no male adults in his life one of his instructors, Simon Callow, takes it upon himself to teach the youngster the facts of life. Years later, in college, James Wilby now plays the title character, and he happens across Hugh Grant in the room of one of the other students, Mark Tandy. They strike up a friendship and Wilby, who previously had expressed no interest in music, is suddenly enthralled with Grant’s study of Tchaikovsky. But one summer they become closer than ever but when Grant professes his love for the other, Wilby balks. He’s been brought up Christian and the idea goes against his very nature, or so he thought. Once he decides to return Grant’s advances, the two of them begin a years-long romance. At first Grant is nearly open with his affection, flaunting it in front of the servants, while Wilby is afraid of being caught. But the tables turn after Tandy is arrested and stripped of his position and his title, and ordered to the work farm. Realizing he could lose everything, Grant takes a trip to Greece to sort things out and determines that the two of them should take the traditional course in life, leaving Wilby devastated.

In desperation Wilby turns to the family physician Denholm Elliott, and he in turn sends him to American Ben Kingsley who tries to use psychotherapy to “cure” him. But it’s not until he meets Rupert Graves, the gameskeeper at Grant’s estate, that he is finally able to accept who he is. The heartbreaking thing about this story is something I’m not sure most people pick up on right away. The implication early on is that both Hugh Grant and James Wilby are gay, but I’m not convinced that’s the case. For many of those boys in boarding school or segregated colleges, relationships with those of their own sex is oftentimes the only thing available to them . . . for years. Historian and journalist Richard Rhodes related similar experiences in his book Making Love: An Erotic Odyssey, that sex between boys at boarding school had nothing to do with being gay. Looked at in this light, Hugh Grant’s actions become clear. His dalliance with Wilby after school is over is simply a continuance of the primary intimate relationship he’s had in his life, not a sexual preference.

Hugh Grant’s character receives a lot of negative criticism for the fact that he’s apparently duping his wife, Phoebe Nicholls, as well as deluding himself and abandoning Wilby. But Grant’s ability to get married is not necessarily going against his nature but I would argue that he is actually finding it after being sequestered with men for so long. There’s a line of dialogue with Wilby, where he says as much. Assuming that Wilby has fallen in love with a woman he says, “It’s the greatest thing on earth, perhaps the only one . . . Aren’t women extraordinary?” The sentiment seems genuine in the film and gives much more logic to Grant’s behavior. It also makes the story that much more tragic because Wilby has no such option for the simple fact that he is really gay. Hugh Grant is impossibly young in the film, and does a tremendous job. James Wilby’s performance is much less so, but that’s no doubt due to the screenplay. There is an unfocused quality to his performance and, with the lack of voiceover, an emotional disconnect for the audience. And his willingness to rebound into the arms of a servant is a disturbing in a way that isn’t resolved before the film ends. Rupert Graves, continues the excellent work he began in A Room with a View, and the cameos by Simon Callow and Helena Bonham Carter are fun. Maurice is certainly an interesting film, fascinating in a way, but ultimately too one-dimensional to be considered great.

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