Released in 1987, Maurice was Merchant Ivory’s second turn adapting EM Forster’s work for the silver screen. Despite the success achieved by their previous Forster adaptation, A Room with a View, Maurice released to relatively little fanfare and made a loss at the box office, getting a single Oscar nomination for costume design compared to A Room with a View’s eight. Whilst Maurice’s recognition has increased a little in recent years, (especially in conversation surrounding queer cinema) the film still flies largely under the radar in popular culture. A large discredit to its quality, in my opinion. Not only is the film a genuinely moving, romantic drama, but the historical context of the both the film’s release and the book it was based on make it a significant marker in the history of queer romance and joy in media.
Set between 1909 and 1913, the film follows Maurice (James Wilby) through his struggles in accepting his sexuality and finding love in the restrictive, repressed society of Edwardian England. In his first year at Cambridge, he meets and falls in love with Clive Durham (Hugh Grant) and the two develop a happy partnership for several years. However, Clive, frightened by the arrest and prosecution of old schoolmate Risley for homosexuality, decides to leave Maurice behind (though the two remain friends) and get married to a woman, living a conformist, heterosexual life. This sends Maurice into a spiral of questioning and doubt until he falls in love for a second time with Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves). and the two decide to defy society and run off together into a happy, fairytale ending.
The film stays incredibly faithful to the novel bar a few changes regarding the addition of Risley’s prosecution, and so the historical context of the book is important in the film’s significance. Maurice was written in 1913 but, due to homosexuality being illegal at the time, remained unpublished until 1971. Novels at the time that did reference or allude to themes of queerness or LGBTQ+ identities, such as The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, had to do it all in subtext, making both the book and film versions of Maurice unique insights into the experiences of gay men in Britain during the Edwardian period.
The film’s greatest quality, however, is its ability to walk the fine line between realism and fantasy. The first half of the film is almost crushingly realistic in the pressures and anxieties Maurice and Clive must sort through just to exist together. The word homosexual is used perhaps three times at most throughout the entire film, with the characters often preferring allusions or idioms such as the phrase “an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort”, showing how they lack the language to adequately communicate their identities with others.
Every aspect of this society is actively against their mere existence. However, the second half of the film, after the appearance of Alec Scudder, takes a turn into a more romantic fantasy. Alec and Maurice defy all expectations and claim their happy ending despite the discrimination facing them. Forster himself felt this ending was unrealistic for 1913, but was insistent upon its defiant happiness, stating that “A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows.”
In 1987, though LGBTQ+ representation in media had somewhat improved, queer cinema was still firmly in the underground scene, and rarely broke into mainstream popularity. What films existed (at least in the UK) were often either somewhat homophobic or solely focused on tragedy and struggle. In addition to this, the AIDS crisis witnessed a huge increase of homophobia in the mass news. In the UK, this peaked in 1987 and would lead to the passing of Section 28 the year after, which banned the promotion of homosexual relationships in schools and by local governments.
Maurice’s release in 1987, with its sweeping romance, fairytale ending, and celebration of queer joy and hope rather than tragedy, was a complete novelty and outlier for British culture at the time. It told a romantic fantasy that had, up until that point, been largely restricted to heterosexual romance.
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Illustration: Verity Laycock