The 1987 Merchant-Ivory classic film Maurice, based on the EM Forster novel of the same name, explores the delicate subject of homosexual love long before Ang Lee made it fashionable—and does so with a touching bravery that one finds in few love stories. Maurice opens with a scene that is both telling and comic. A pale, fair-haired young boy (the young Maurice) and his well-meaning but garrulous teacher are at the beach. The teacher is trying to instruct the boy about sex and hastily draws a crude diagram in the sand to illustrate sexual intercourse. He emphasizes that having sex with a woman in order to procreate is one of the greatest joys known to man. The key words are ‘woman’ and ‘procreate’. The boy looks unconvinced.The movie then steps forward in time to show Maurice as an unsure and self-conscious young student at Cambridge University. This is Edwardian England where homosexuality, ‘the unspeakable vice of the Greeks’, is punishable by law and this all-boys college is a veritable stew of homo-eroticism, repression and hypocrisy. It is here that Maurice meets Clive Durham (a young and dashing Hugh Grant) and launches into what will be the pivotal relationship of his life.
The gradual evolution of their love is beautifully handled; its forbidden undertones traced with delicate fingers. Their individual personalities are carefully nuanced. Sexual tension is slowly built until it is a palpable force on screen. The difficulties that come with the realization are not glossed over either. The scenes that show them falling in love are almost always shot outside and are full of colour, noise (music), boisterousness and energy. It is plain that this is the texture of their love–everything pales when they are not with each other. With its rich, upper-crust interiors and almost suffocating stillness, the halls and quadrangles of Cambridge University form the perfect backdrop to their relationship.
Interestingly, Clive admits the truth about his feelings for Maurice first. Maurice’s strict, church-going upbringing holds him back initially but once he lets go of these constrictions, Maurice’s acceptance of himself is more whole-hearted. Clive insists that they keep their relationship platonic. It is as if he cannot make this final leap and seeks the safety of some boundary, unnecessary and hypocritical though it may be. This irony is largely indicative of the ways in which the two will evolve through the movie.
In the beginning, Clive is the rebellious, blaspheming, Tchaikovsky scholar who ‘despises’ his mother and laughs at Maurice’s naiveté for believing in Christian tenets. Maurice, on the hand, is shy and uncertain. But Clive is the one who scares easy. Later in the movie, he is almost paralyzed with fear when a classmate is arrested and disgraced for homosexuality. He withdraws from Maurice, ostensibly to ‘think about things’, travels the world, comes back and breaks up with him with in a shattering scene where his casual politeness is a far cry from the intensity of the earlier days. He goes on to marry a woman and settles down to the life of a staid country gentleman. He enters politics and, eventually, represents humbug in the worst possible way—by refusing to even acknowledge the true nature of his relationship with Maurice. Clive is as central to the story as Maurice because he elucidates many of the key themes and provides the counterpoint to the other. Hugh Grant effectively portrays the journey of a beautiful young man on the verge of something who becomes a square, stuffy gentleman, capable of nothing.
While Clive represents landed gentry, Maurice is the ordinary, average man who works as a stock broker. Clive struggles towards social acceptance and is terrified at the thought of endangering it. Maurice, who presumably has less to lose socially, struggles with inner demons—loss of love, loneliness and self-doubt—and is more honest with others. This is evident early on. He is arduous in his love for Clive, even bordering on foolhardiness at times. He is expelled from Cambridge for one of his jaunts with Clive. In a weak moment, he kisses Clive on the mouth in front of his mother. When Clive is ill, he is insistent on nursing him, which elicits a snarky remark from the doctor. Though both are dealing with the same fears and censures, Maurice is more concerned with the truths of his own life.
After being jilted by Clive, Maurice goes through a troubled phase during which he tries to come to terms with what society expects of him. He hovers in between bluster and diffidence, individualism and pretense, intense efforts to forget or change (including hypnotism). One often gets the impression that it could go either way. James Wilby’s measured performance bring out the subtleties of Maurice’s emotional, moral and physical struggle with clarity and pathos.
But Maurice is not completely devoid of snobbery. This is why he is slow to notice Alec Scudder, the under gamekeeper at Clive’s estate despite the latter’s attentions. Maurice may not be landed gentry but he is a guest. It hardly befits him to befriend the help and he is fully conscious of this. He is also more suspicious of Scudder even after their first night together because of his background. “What does his father do?” he asks Clive and worries that Scudder will blackmail him.
In the end, when he finally casts all social constraints aside, he does it spectacularly—accepting his own homosexuality, leaping over class boundaries to be with Scudder, and telling Clive to finally go to hell. It is possible that sex becomes a liberating force for him at this stage. Remember, he is a virgin because Clive refused to consummate their relationship so Scudder is his first sexual experience; a first experience that undoubtedly plays a role in propelling him towards his decision. Maurice’s beginning may be uncertain, and his middle often falters, but his end is triumphant. One almost feels like cheering.
Class plays an important role in the growth and choices of both men. Clive is trapped by his own class expectations, fear of ostracism and political ambitions. In the end, he is a lost man, living a life that is ‘half-awake’ as he himself described it to be before he met Maurice, and it is only through continued self-delusion that he can go on. His marriage with Anne is characterized by distance. They are rarely shown together and even the brief moments of intimacy are hurried and, somehow, false. In the last scene, when both of them are standing at the window, they gaze in different directions, each lost in their own thoughts and with no access to the other’s. They are doomed to a life whose best quality will be politeness.
As a businessman, Maurice is less needy of social approval. He is not perturbed when expelled from Cambridge, and in the end, he chooses to give up certain things in order to reclaim himself. Interestingly, Maurice tries to practice self-delusion by visiting a hypnotist but is unable to do so while Clive does it naturally and easily. Scudder forms the extreme end of this triangle. A poor boy looking to take the next boat to the Argentine, he is least encumbered by social norms. His yearning for Maurice is simple; his move towards him, almost instinctive; his decision to stay behind in England, clean and unfussy. He is driven by his feelings and rarely vacillates or agonizes over the possible consequences. Perhaps, it is because he has so little that there is less fear of losing.