LIKE LAST year's Room With A View, Maurice was adapted from an E.M. Forster novel by the Ivory-Merchant production team. It too focuses on the upper slice of English society and is filled with rabbit hunts, horse riding and quaint dinner conversation. The new film even features a climactic game of cricket.
Written by Kit Hesketh-Harvey and James Ivory
Directed by James Ivory
At the Janus
In its long and leisurely way, Maurice (pronounced "Morris") tells the tale of Maurice Hall (James Wilby), a young Englishman who grapples with the discovery that he is, in his own words, "the Oscar Wilde sort." In early 20th century England, of course, this "sort" of behavior was serious stuff: homosexuality was illegal, punishable by imprisonment, flogging and a ruined reputation.
This threatening setting gives Maurice most if not all of its drama. The movie's real focus--Maurice's search for true love--is unfortunately not nearly as riveting.
The action begins in 1909 in the rooms of one of the Deans at Cambridge University. A group of young men are gathered to engage in pretentious debate over the relative worth of music, conversation, and a veal cutlet, It's a nice start but it also turns out to be one of the very few moments of humor in the script. The rest of this solemn movie follows the next five years of Maurice's life as he transforms himself from a callow undergraduate into a cultivated city stock-broker, all the while guarding his secret from the Dean, the police and London society.
The Ivory-Merchant team have always made the effort to be faithful to the spirit of the novels they have adapted, and with films like Room and The Bostonians, the approach worked well. With Maurice, however, a novel that Forster wrote in 1917 but refused to publish in his lifetime, the filmmakers have latched on to some lesser material, held tight for two and a half hours, and smothered stirring emotional turmoil with good intentions.
WHAT Maurice lacks most pointedly are compelling characters. Neither Master Hall nor his two gorgeous loves, the aristocrat Clive Durham (Hugh Grant) and Clive's swarthy gameskeeper Alec Scutter (Rupert Graves) have much in the way of lively sparks. Clive tries to deny his own homosexuality and even marries. Maurice channels his emotional and sexual frustration into training under-privileged London boys. Whatever they do, however, they remain bland figures taking themselves very seriously.
If only Maurice and Clive and Alec also shared Oscar Wilde's gift for one-liners.
Director Ivory has certainly filmed Maurice beautifully, handling the love scenes with particular grace. Throughout the film, he bathes the men in the most flattering of lights and colors, and thus ends up with homosexual love scenes that look completely natural if not especially erotic. While these moments seem perfectly frank--especially with more of the Room With A View-type naturalistic nudity--the actors also never muster any impressive degree of passion.
Unfortunately, this unremarkable standard of acting holds throughout Maurice. To be sure, Graves makes his lower-class character appealing, but he cannot make Scudder or his love affair with Maurice very believeable. And although Wilby does manage to convey some of Maurice's more subtle changes over the film's five-year span, he and the other members of the cast never lose their stifling self-conciousness.
Only Ben Kingsley, who makes a brief turn as the American hypnotist/therapist Maurice consults in hope of a "cure" for his homosexuality, seems as if he's perfectly settled into his role. With his ridiculous advice to Maurice--"go take some exercise, go stroll around with a gun"--Kingsley's Doctor injects a less solemn note into a movie that could really use some gaiety.
Merchant and Ivory may have maintained their loyalty to Forster and his text, but the story itself doesn't deserve the royal treatment.