Saturday, June 20, 2020

James Ivory | Maurice

a world and time that kills love and dreams
by Douglas Messerli

Kit Hesketh-Harvey and James Ivory (screenplay, based on E. M. Forster’s fictional bildingsroman Maurice) James Ivory (director) Maurice / 1987

James Ivory’s 1987 film, Maurice (the name of the work’s cinematic hero, pronounced “Morris”) is certainly one of the most beautifully filmed gay romances ever committed to celluloid. Even the costumes captured the attention of the Academy Awards, who chose this film for its Best Costume Award.
     The acting, particularly that of James Wilby (as Maurice Hall), Hugh Grant (as Clive Durham) and Rupert Graves (as the stable boy-bay lover of Maur), is believable and effecting. Moreover, these three leads are all remarkably beautiful men.
     Even minor characters such as Simon Callow (Mr. Ducie), Billie Whitelaw (Mrs. Hall), Judy Parfitt (Mrs. Durham), and Mark Tandy (as Lord Risley, young and older) are superbly acted.
     The sets, particularly those at Cambridge and Pendersleigh, are breathtaking.
   And despite a rather simple narrative—young Cambridge student Clive falls in love with another student, Maurice, but demands their love remains non-sexual because, so Clive argues, somewhat inexplicably, it would diminish them both.
     Ultimately after a desultory trip to Greece Clive returns to England determined to break off his love affair with Maurice—particularly after the arrest and imprisonment of their acquaintance Risley for homosexual behavior—and return to heterosexuality, in part so that he might marry a rather clueless and not truly beautiful woman, Anne, he has met in Greece and become the sole resident with his wife of the country estate Pendaersleigh. In other words, he chooses wealth, position, and the sexual status-quo of English society, rather than his true love and sexuality. He is a coward in a world of such men.
    In the second mirror half of this story, Maurice shaves his moustache—which Clive has somewhat justifiably dislikes—to become a younger looking and far more handsome boy. Clive now sports a small black moustache which completely alters his face, taking away nearly all of Hugh Grant’s natural beauty, if that’s possible.

   Visited by the under-gamekeeper, Alex Scudder, late one night in his bedroom, Maurice falls desperately in love with the servant, but soon after fears that he will be black-mailed, particularly when Alex invites him to the boathouse to talk about ‘something important,’ and later visits him at his London office at the stock-exchange.
     After a fearful few moments, Maurice visits the British Museum with the handsome boy and discovers that Alex does not want money but respect and continued love. Maurice rents a hotel room where the couple again have an evening of satisfying love -making. Unlike the sensuously-based love between Maurice and Clive, his love with Alex is most definitely carnal and completely fulfilling to both lovers.  
     When Alex reminds him that since the very next day we will be traveling with his brother to Argentina and new job, Maurice insists that he stay. “And live your mother?” Alex asks somewhat aghast. Certainly, Maurice could not continue his job at the stock exchange. “We’re both smart,” insists Maurice, we can find something else. But even Alex is a bit flabbergasted by his friend’s fantasies.
     When Maurice, carrying a small token of his love, arrives at the boat that is to take Scudder away, he meets his lower middle-class parents, the brother, and a minister who carries with him a reference so another minister in Argentina will baptize the young sinner.
      When Alex does not show up by the time the boat is ready to sail, Maurice realizes just what Alex has sacrificed for his love, and instinctually rushes off the Pendersleigh to visit the boathouse where he is sure he will find Alex waiting.
      Maurice pauses only to tell Clive what he is about to do, his former lover begging him to rethink his folly. Ignoring Clive’s pleas, he rushes to the boathouse wherein the two again embrace and kiss, Alex whispering into his ear: “"Now we shan't never be parted."
     The film ends with Clive closing up the house for the night, and another perhaps not so perfect evening with his sweet but not-brilliant wife. At one window he pauses for a few moments before closing down the curtain, peering into the darkness surround Pendersleigh. Yet we can clearly imagine what he is thinking: about his past love of Maurice and, perhaps, the desperate choices he has made as opposed to the open possibilities Maurice has created for himself.
      If the plot I have just recounted, in abridged form, seems as if it could be that of any paperback heterosexual romance, with hunky men and long-haired beauties attempting to escape the fates, fortunately, the real heart of this film, as well as Forester’s original novel, remains unspoken, about a love that cannot be spoken and the inner turmoil’s of the individuals trapped within its web.
      If, at work’s end, everything seems to be somewhat peaceable as the closing credits rise, we know that Alex’s fears for their future were not at all insignificant. Just how the happiest couple might now survive is difficult to imagine. For there are still three major villains waiting in the darkness into which Clive seems to be peering before heading off to slumber.
       We get glimpses of all of these villains throughout the movie, but the full brunt of their force is not fully revealed in the film itself. The first of these, obviously, is long list of laws against homosexuality that remained on the books until 2010 and, for the military, 2016. Beginning with the 1533 Buggery Act, the offences, without the punishment of death, were extended under the 1961 Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 and The Labouchere Amendment of 1885, the law by which Oscar Wilde was tried. And the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment extended those previous laws to include any king of sexual activity between males, obviously the law through through which this film’s Lord Risley was imprisoned. As late as the 1950s, another Cambridge genius, Alan Turning received chemical castration (in place of imprisonment) for his gay sexual actions, and later, it is believed, committed suicide
     As the doctor Maurice temporarily visits to be cured of homosexuality by hypnosis, advises, when, upon the second visit Maurice reveals he has again had wonderful sex with Alex and argues that it is simply human nature, “Perhaps you should move to France or Italy which more openly allow such sexuality. England is a country which has always been disinclined to accept human nature,
     One can only imagine the thousands of young men who grew up in a world where that had been educated in a male-only world, with plenty of opportunity and sometimes even encouragement to participate in male-on-male sexual relationships, forced upon their university or college graduations to suddenly move into a new heterosexual space.
     For some like Clive the new reality was gradually accepted, sometimes with secret exceptions—a trip to the city, a hunting party with friends in the wild, or frequent trips abroad. For men like Maurice, truly moral beings who longed to love one person, those choices were quite impossible.
     The second villain of this piece is the entire British culture, its dead religious principles, its reticence to speak out and up for anything outside of the status quo, and, most important/lyt, its class systems. Certainly, Clive is as much punished by these absurd rules of behavior. And clearly Alex is punished by the last, at first even by Maurice, who hardly notices him, until, like story of Rapunzel, climbs a purposely situated ladder to get into Maurice’s beautiful blond hair. And when Alex later arrives in London, the first thing he complains about is Maurice’s public embarrassment of him and his treatment by Anne at Pendersleigh, who can never seem to remember his name. Throughout the film, Alex is also being hounded by a minister who wants him baptized, even at his destination of Argentina. The pomp and circumstance of the people around him, leave Alex quite literally in a whirl, with little possibility of putting a new reality of his own into place.
     Yet the final villain, more subtle that these others, is only hinted at by the director’s decision to literally date his scenes: 1910 The Edwardian Age, etc. And, later, by all the young women’s attempts to bandage ever nearby male who they can get their hands on.  
     I believe that the last dated scene of this film is 1913. By the next year, World War I will have broken out, and many of the young men portrayed in this film—most certainly Maurice and Alex, Clive perhaps to be saved by his position in the class system—finding themselves in trenches or involved in impossibly meaningless maneuvers that would kill thousands. One need only remind oneself of another very handsome Cambridge-educated poet, Rupert Brooke, who was bisexual and died in 1915; or the gay poet Wilfred Owen, who died in 1918, author of Anthems for Doomed Youth.
     When I began this piece I was going to describe Ivory’s film as a “gay fantasy,” but the dreams of living together for the rest of their lives in peace, are not simple fantasies; rather they are sad statements about a society and time that would squelch and destroy all of their possibilities for love and dreams.

Los Angeles, June 20, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2020).

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