Maurice Hall (James Wilby) can’t say he wasn’t warned. About to leave his prep school, he’s given a lesson in the male and female reproductive systems by his teacher Ben Ducie (Simon Callow) drawing both with an embarrassed toe in wet sand during a school trip. This is God’s plan for how things work, Ducie instructs him, and there must be no deviation from it. Further warning is given by the Dean of Maurice’s Cambridge college (Barry Foster), who skirts around ‘the unspeakable vice of the Greeks’ while conducting a class reading of Plato.
Despite the Dean’s beady eye for ‘beastliness’, Maurice promptly falls in love with handsome fellow student Clive Durham (Hugh Grant), their early fumblings accompanied by Allegri’s Miserere, sung by the choir of King’s College (an interesting echo of Stephen Frears and Alan Bennett’s PRICK UP YOUR EARS, released like this E. M. Forster adaptation in 1987, where Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell first have sex during Handel’s Coronation anthem Zadok the Priest).
While Maurice is keen to keep the relationship going during the long vacations and beyond, Clive is more wary, especially after their flamboyant Cambridge chum Lord Risley (one of the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ brigade much in evidence in Evelyn Waugh and elsewhere) is entrapped and sent to prison for committing homosexual offences. With his eyes on bigger prizes – becoming lord of the manor and then the local MP – Clive disentangles himself from Maurice and the ‘muddle’ they’ve got themselves into, marries well (to Phoebe Nicholls, queen of 1980s ‘nice gels’) and relegates Maurice to the role of handsome catch at his country house weekends and shooting parties.
But here, complete with crooked teeth and heavy boots, comes Rupert Graves as the Lawrentian gamekeeper’s assistant Alec Scudder (like Leonard Bast in HOWARD’S END, one of Forster’s awkwardly named working-class heroes). Before long, Scudder is literally climbing the ladder – into Maurice’s attic room. This risky romance continues under the noses of both hosts and servants for the rest of the film, despite Maurice’s trying to get the ‘illness’ out of his system by coaching deprived lads in an East End boxing club. He also visits Lasker-Jones, an American hypnotherapist (Ben Kingsley) but this supposed cure doesn’t work either, and Lasker-Jones recommends that Maurice moves to the more tolerant Italy or France, as ‘England has always been disinclined to accept human nature’.
“Considered brave at the time for even being made at the height of the AIDS epidemic, MAURICE is as sleek and well-upholstered as the rest of the Ismail Merchant/James Ivory canon…”
Considered brave at the time for even being made at the height of the AIDS epidemic, MAURICE is as sleek and well-upholstered as the rest of the Ismail Merchant/James Ivory canon, including their other Forster adaptations, A ROOM WITH A VIEW and HOWARD’S END. Its faults, of which over-length is one, lie in the uncertainty of tone towards the Maurice/Scudder relationship, and the many stop-start scenes which crowd the last third of the film as it lurches towards a satisfactory if not happy ending. The novel itself wasn’t published until 1971, after Forster’s death (as well as his mother’s: he didn’t want her to read it) and followed many revisions since he started writing it sixty years earlier.
Leaving the Lasker-Jones scenes till towards the end also creates an unfortunate cameo effect, Ben Kingsley appearing more than a little like Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood’s GLEN OR GLENDA! cropping up to urge the tortured hero (Wood himself) to embrace his transvestite tendencies (‘Pull the string! Pull the string!’). Elsewhere the performances are exemplary and it’s ironic that the two leads have followed the career trajectories of their characters Clive and Maurice: Hugh Grant achieving superstardom, while James Wilby has tended to ricochet between the likes of CASUALTY and POLDARK, his period drama appearances also including the crippled and cuckolded Sir Clifford in Ken Russell’s LADY CHATTERLEY.