With compassion, humor and detachment, James Ivory's superb film oM. Forster's "Maurice" (opening Friday at selected theaters) takes us into the complacent, fixed world of Britain's privileged classes in the years immediately before World War I.
The key settings are Cambridge in all its ancient academic glory, a large, upper-middle-class home in suburban London and the ever-so-slightly crumbling mansion of Wiltshire landed gentry. It is a world of dark burnished wood and polished silver, at once made comfortable by servants and formal by customs that ritualize everything from meals to sports to dress. It offers a seductively cozy, absolute security for the conventional--and no place at all for those who defy its codes. It could be an absolute hell for a homosexual, which is what E. M. Forster was himself.
Forster shrewdly made his hero, Maurice, an utterly regular fellow, neither brilliant nor dull, a perfect product of his time and place except for his sexual orientation. Maurice's slow, agonized dawning of his true nature and its consequences are as beautifully evoked on the screen as it is on the printed page, thanks to James Wilby's wonderfully unaffected portrayal of Maurice and to Ivory and his co-adapter Kit Hesketh-Harvey's graceful yet succinct script, a miracle of both apt selectivity and development that does full honor to its distinguished source.
The feelings that the bright, Arrow-shirt-ad-handsome Clive (Hugh Grant) stir in Maurice plunge them both into multisided conflict, for their love for each other puts them at odds not only with their social class but also the teachings of their Anglican background, the views of the medical profession at the time--Freud had clearly not yet dented the English upper-middle classes--and finally British law, which made them susceptible to blackmail as well as prison sentences. (Homosexuality was not decriminalized in Great Britain until 1967.)
Clive may refuse Communion but at heart both men like their positions in society and have no desire to compromise their assured futures. Their sense of propriety, reinforced by guilt and fear, forbids them to consummate their love physically. As students and later as young men about town they pursue their platonic ideal without raising eyebrows, but we have to wonder how long this idyllic accommodation can last, especially when they're both expected to marry as a matter of course.
Forster felt that he had slighted Clive, and Ivory and Hesketh-Harvey have in fact deftly embellished the plot, devising a fate for his aristocratic friend Risley (Mark Tandy), whose effect upon Clive makes his own character and motivations more understandable. Forster surely would have approved of such an inspired stroke in what is a remarkably faithful and perceptive adaptation of a novel. As in the book, Maurice however remains the central figure, a man who discovers he must decide to what extent he's willing to conform to the expectations of a society in which he feels increasingly isolated--a society that deals with homosexuality by trying to deny its very existence.
Just as a very patrician Cambridge dean (Barry Foster) commands that students omit a reference to the "unspeakable vice of the Greeks" during a translation of Plato's Symposium, Maurice's formidable family physician (Denholm Elliott), to whom he confesses his homosexuality, insists that "the worst thing I could do for you is to discuss it." An American "hypnotherapist" (Ben Kingsley) is not much help to Maurice, but he does sensibly advise living abroad, in France or Italy, where homosexuality is not illegal. "England," he says, very amusingly, "has always been disinclined to accept human nature."
The odyssey of self-discovery upon which Maurice embarks is not just that of a homosexual struggling to accept himself but that of anyone who finds himself/herself in conflict with society's norms. "Struggles like his are the supreme achievement of humanity, and surpass any legends about Heaven," Forster declared nobly. The irony is that Maurice, in order to cope in his growing honesty with himself, must become a much better, far more sensitive man than had he been heterosexual.
"Maurice" is well-nigh flawless, starting with its performances in which the slightest inflection can be loaded with significance. So insinuating is Patrick Godfrey's valet (to Clive), for example, that we're invited to assume that he's aware of Maurice and Clive's feelings for each other, but we could never prove it.