The year is 1909, and Maurice Hall (James Wilby) remembers ten years ago when he was told the facts of life by his schoolmaster (Simon Callow) on a windswept beach one day, and was left none the wiser other than to make up his mind that he never wanted to be married, nor have a relationship with a woman. He has been brought up in a household of women, after all, and this seems to have starved him of male affection, therefore when his roommate Clive Durham (Hugh Grant) seems like someone he would like to get to know, they grow closer over the university year at Oxford. Perhaps closer than any of them can handle, and that can spell trouble...
Although they are looked back on as the epitome of tasteful cinema from a decade - their nineteen-eighties heyday - that was brash and gaudy and all those terribly vulgar things, and therefore an island of class in a sea of chintz and trash, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were not necessarily regarded that way at the time. Those fans back then have stayed fans, and those new to them approach them with all due reverence, but in the eighties themselves there were plenty who saw nothing in their work but stuffiness and a stranglehold on the popular notion of what should be seen as classic film, when far more innovative efforts were neglected and even pilloried.
To which you could observe right back, what do you want from E.M. Forster adaptations, Peter Greenaway or something? Merchant Ivory became a brand in itself, of a certain quality where you were never too far away from a tweed suit or the possibility of a cricket match suddenly breaking out on the village green, though even so among that canon of work were eccentricities like Savages or Slaves of New York, not that they were much recalled when the subject of their endeavours was brought up. Yet what was interesting from a cultural perspective was that these two men were romantic partners, which by all rights should have imbued their work with the "queer" sensibility.
Despite that, you would more likely see a bunch of maiden aunts going to see A Room With a View than fans of Derek Jarman (or even Julian Clary), yet Maurice was genuinely a gay love story, more than one in fact, published posthumously from Forster's archives. He was a homosexual gentleman himself, which is probably why this adaptation read as more suitable for other homosexual gentlemen, more Stephen Fry than Marc Almond, to pick out names who would know what gay life would have been like in the eighties. Of course, a piece like this was daring in its way, as no matter how respectable it presented itself, the fact remained that despite the decriminalisation being nearly twenty years old in 1987 when this was released, the spectre of AIDS remained the source of a lot of prejudice and even violence.
Therefore to make a film that gently told its protagonist that he need not be ashamed of his sexual orientation, and while things were tough now they were not always going to be that way, was a brave move, and that tenderness distinguished it. Although they dd not go as far as explicit sex scenes, we were in no doubt what was going on between the sheets, and male nudity was included as if to say, we're being as frank as we're comfortable with here, but we're not going to cop out. Maurice, as played by Wilby, was a nice but dim type whose leanings towards Grant's more in denial Durham were doomed eventually, but what was unusual was that this unrequited (to a point) love did not doom Maurice as well. In what comes across like a fairy tale conclusion, one of these men has a happy ending, while the other does not, and it's surprisingly haunting in its final shot. Before you say, well, Maurice would have been jailed pretty sharpish for his romance with servant Scudder (Rupert Graves with a Lady Chatterley's Lover accent), Forster did base this union on a couple he knew, so it was possible. It may be a fairly staid experience dramatically, lots of wood-panelled drawing rooms and the like, but it was subversive for its time, in its reserved manner. Music by Richard Robbins.
[Loads of features on the BFI's Blu-ray, see below:
Maurice: A Director's Perspective (2017, 40 mins): a conversation between James Ivory and Tom McCarthy (director of Spotlight)
James Ivory and Pierre Lhomme on making of Maurice (2017, 16 mins): the director and cinematographer talk to Gavin Smith
Q&A with James Ivory and Pierre Lhomme (2017, 23 mins): moderated by Nicholas Elliot of Cahier du Cinema
Reflections on Maurice (2019, 19 mins): a new interview with actor Hugh Grant and James Wilby in conversation(2018, 5 mins)
Screening E.M. Forster (2019, 8 mins, audio only): audio extracts of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant in a panel discussion recorded at the BFI's National Film Theatre in 1992
Original and Re-release Trailer
Deleted scenes with optional audio commentary by Professor Claire Monk (39 mins)
Newly recorded audio commentary by Professor Claire Monk of De Montfort University
Illustrated booklet with writing by James Ivory, John Pym and Claire Monk, plus full film credits.]