Saturday, March 19, 2011

Maurice (Merchant Ivory Productions, Cinecom Pictures, Film Four International, 1987)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Maurice (pronounced “Morris”), based on the novel E. M. Forster wrote over a number of years starting in 1913 (which is about when it takes place) in which he basically “outed” himself as Gay — and which he showed privately to a few friends but would not allow to be published until after his death because he was terrified about the social and (especially) legal consequences of him being found out. When Maurice’s story starts in 1909 the Oscar Wilde scandals were still matters of common memory in Britain and anyone who felt same-sex urges was all too aware of the likely consequences of them. The story (I haven’t read the book) begins in 1909 in King’s College at Cambridge University and focuses on central character Maurice Hill (played by a rather twerpy-looking blond guy named James Wilby) and his best friends, Clive Durham (Hugh Grant, in the role that made him a star) and Viscount Risley (Mark Tandy). When they’re not going to class they’re hanging out to each other and having the same pseudo-profound discussions about life, love, art, music and whatnot that undergraduates have probably been having at least since the days of Plato’s Symposium (which is actually referenced in the dialogue).

In one early scene Risley is defending the music of Wagner against Maurice’s and Clive’s attacks (which made me identify with him right there, even though the real Wagner liked Queers about as much as he liked Jews; he once wrote that he admired everything about the ancient Greeks except “their love — pederasty”), and from his relative boldness and assertiveness we just know that he’s going to be the first one of them to get into serious trouble regarding his homosexual attractions. Clive and Maurice start an affair of sorts, which doesn’t get beyond kissing and necking because Clive insists that male-male love must be on a higher plane than the sordidly “physical,” and even the limited contact they actually have gets Maurice thrown out of university when the dean catches them leaving the campus in a three-wheeled motorbike when Maurice is supposed to be in one of the dean’s classes, and Maurice responds by insulting him. Maurice’s father gets him a job in a stockbroker’s office, where he seems to spend most of his time reading the ticker tape, but he’s still welcome at the country home of Clive’s family even after Clive announces his engagement to Anne (Phoebe Nicholls) and urges Maurice to outgrow his same-sex foolishness, find a nice girl and settle down.

Maurice has not only Clive’s apparently happy — or at least not desperately unhappy — adjustment to heterosexuality to serve as an example, but also the negative example of a scandal involving Risley, who was caught trying to buy the sexual services of a guardsman, disgraced, sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and ruined politically (both he and Clive were aspiring politicians) and socially. Maurice accordingly seeks out a doctor who attempts to “cure” him with hypnosis, which works about as well as the “reparative therapy” programs of today, and his attempts to restrain himself fall apart when he meets and falls in love with servant Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves), a gamekeeper on the Durham estate. Clive is horrified at this news — it seems that he’s bothered equally by the fact that Maurice is doing “the physical” and that he’s doing it with someone so far below their social class — and even Alec intends to leave England and emigrate to Argentina, only at the last minute he doesn’t get on the boat and instead hangs out in the boat house on the Durham estate, where Maurice meets him for what appears to be at least a sort of happy ending.

Earlier Maurice had told Alec that in order for them to stay together he’d have to give up his stockbroker job, his position and his money — the obvious expedient of hiring Alec as his servant by day while keeping him as his lover by night doesn’t seem to have occurred to either of them (maybe E. M. Forster would have considered that too dangerous) — and the film leaves them paired up. Forster wrote an epilogue to the novel which he later deleted, in which Maurice and Alec did indeed become a couple but Maurice had to join Alec in the working class to do it — the two of them have become woodcutters — and the main action of the epilogue was that Maurice should meet his estranged sister Kitty (played in the film by Kitty Aldridge) and she would express her disapproval of his situations both in work and in life — while Maurice and Alec would feel forced to move out of where they were living and hide even further to avoid detection.

Maurice was filmed in 1987 by the producer-director team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, and almost certainly was greenlighted because they’d just had a major success with another (non-Gay) Forster story, A Room with a View, which had been an international hit and made a star out of Helena Bonham Carter. By now the term “Merchant-Ivory movie” has become a shorthand term for a certain type of film — British in setting and cast, usually based on a major work of British literature, quietly told, acted with impeccable taste … and also long and talky, with little or no cinematic invention and utterly no attempt to find a visually interesting film style to translate the novelist’s prose style into movie terms. (The opposite way to do a literary adaptation is the one Orson Welles chose when he filmed The Magnificent Ambersons, a visually spectacular work even in the truncated form that survives and one which, if you read the book, you will see clearly how Welles was attempting to find a cinematic equivalent to Booth Tarkington’s prose style instead of merely filming the incidents Tarkington wrote about.)

Maurice is no exception; it’s a welcome movie not only because its source is a Gay literary classic but it’s also one of the very first fictional stories about Gays that actually dared a happy ending — Maurice isn’t publicly disgraced, imprisoned, Queer-bashed or driven to suicide, and indeed he does the Romantic-era thing and gives up his privilege and social position for his lover. There are other problems with this film that are inherent in the story; the upper-class twittiness of the major characters gets so wearing after a while I was hoping some rebellious proletarians would come in with machine guns and mow down all the characters — and, surprisingly for a British film, it isn’t all that well acted. James Wilby is cute in a twerpy-twink way but hardly someone you’d imagine as passion’s plaything, straight or Gay; Hugh Grant (who’d later get involved in a real-life incident that, though heterosexual, otherwise paralleled Risley’s disgrace in the film, and would lose a potential star career that had previously been compared to his near-namesake from the classic era, real-life Bisexual Cary Grant) pretty much walks through his role as Clive (though to be fair he’s turning in a superficial performance as a superficial character); and the two most intensely etched performances in the movie are Mark Tandy’s and Rupert Graves’s.

Tandy’s Risley is by far the most charismatic of the three central characters at the beginning, and our anguish at his fate is only compounded by his disappearance from the story, which strips it of its most compelling character (indeed Tandy seemed like he would have been great casting for Sherlock Holmes) — and when Graves as Scudder enters he blows away all the upper-class pretensions not only of Maurice himself but of everyone around him. Indeed, the last third of Maurice comes off as a sort of Gay version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (even though Forster wrote his book before D. H. Lawrence wrote his and neither of them could have been influenced by the other), with Maurice’s enervated upper-class (twit) sensibilities blown away by Scudder’s honesty, earthiness and penchant for swearing — and just as I had the impression when I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover that Lawrence ended it just as it was about to get interesting (with Lady Chatterley and Gamekeeper Mellors pairing up and emigrating to Canada for a pioneer existence), so does Maurice — which Forster may have realized when he penned that epilogue before he caught on that it wouldn’t work.

The movie Maurice is engaging in a lot of ways — as I mentioned, it’s refreshing to have a Queer-themed movie (especially one set this far back) which doesn’t end with its protagonists dead or emotionally devastated and empty (one reason I couldn’t understand the Queer-community hype surrounding Brokeback Mountain was it did end with one of the male leads fatally Queer-bashed and the other emotionally devastated and empty, and I would have thought the film hailed by the mainstream Queer community as the Queer movie would have had a more positive ending), and I liked the touch that the favorite piece of music the three student buddies listen to and cherish at the beginning is Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pathetique” (the real Tchaikovsky was Gay and suffered a long series of blackmails and other victimizations from people he’d picked up sexually; according to one account of his death, he was forced to drink cholera-tainted water as a disguised suicide by an upper-class “honor court” who sentenced him to death for starting an affair with a nobleman’s son — which, if true, suggests that Oscar Wilde got off easy by comparison!), which is often regarded as a work inspired by Tchaikovsky’s own self-hatred and melancholy over being Queer. It’s a film that, even within the limits of its material, could have been better than it was, but it’s still a milestone in Queer cinema (as Forster’s novel is a milestone in Queer literature) and holds up pretty well today.