E.M. Forster, the acclaimed British author of such works as A Room with a View, Howards End, and A Passage to India, all published between 1908 and 1924, never intended to put his story of the love between two men into print at the time he completed it, and certainly not until after his mother's death. No major work of fiction to that point had tackled the subject of living as a homosexual in a restrictive and repressive society, and Forster, who struggled with the pain of society's condemnation of his sexuality all his life, had scribbled a note on the manuscript: "Publishable, but worth it?" Although generally dismissed by critics in the early 1970s as one of his minor works, it nevertheless was remarkable not only for describing same-sex relationships without condemnation but for Forster's insistence on giving it a happy ending. In this respect, it's unique among the type of coming-of-age novel that often ends with marriage because its romantic couplings were completely forbidden at the time of its writing.
In the years since its publication, the book has been critically re-examined and judged more favorably than its first reception, thanks largely to the effective handling of its story by the filmmaking team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory. The pair had just achieved their greatest success to that date with their first Forster adaptation, A Room with a View (1985). During the production of that movie, Ivory read a number of Forster's novels and decided Maurice "was interesting material and would be enjoyable to make--and also something we could make in that it wouldn't require too much organization and wouldn't cost all that much." (Robert Emmett Long, The Films of Merchant Ivory, 1993, Citadel) He also thought the themes were still quite relevant, even in the 1980s. "Although the book was written over 70 years ago, it's completely relevant to today," Ivory told People magazine in October 1987. "The laws may have changed regarding homosexuality, but people's feelings--the dismay, panic and compromises they endure--remain the same." The statement is a telling one from a man who had been with his professional and life partner, Ismail Merchant, for more than 20 years at that point, yet still refused to discuss their personal relationship with the magazine.
Despite the duo's artistic reputation, however, the rights were not so easy to come by. After Forster's death, control of his work went to the board of fellows at King's College Cambridge, which was reluctant to give the nod to a film version. The novel's plot and characters weren't the issue, not even the fact that the book examines the hypocritically homoerotic nature of the British public school system. The governors, sharing the critical consensus that this was a flawed work, were afraid a movie would draw attention to the novel and put it under further unfavorable scrutiny. It was Merchant's dogged persuasiveness and the cinematic treatment of A Room with a View that finally convinced them.
Ivory's usual writing partner Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was either unavailable (according to some stories) or declined to work on what she considered an inferior book, so he developed the script with first-time feature writer Kit Hesketh-Harvey, a Cambridge graduate familiar with the novel's milieu. Jhabvala did, however, look at the script and make suggestions, including the addition of a more convincing reason for the character Clive's sudden decision to live his life exclusively as a heterosexual.
Julian Sands, a lead player in A Room with a View was originally cast as Maurice, but backed out due to personal issues. John Malkovich, who was to play Lasker-Jones, also dropped out, and his role went to Ben Kingsley. A few other cast members from A Room with a View ended up in the new project, including Rupert Graves, Denholm Elliott, and Simon Callow. Helena Bonham Carter, the young star of the earlier movie, also had a small uncredited bit in this one. For the part of Clive, Ivory chose Hugh Grant, then an unknown with only one picture to his credit.
Much of the praise for the screen version of Maurice went to James Wilby for his fully committed and sensitive performance as the title character. He had appeared in a handful of films prior to this, including a small uncredited part in A Room with a View. He later worked again with Merchant Ivory in their most acclaimed film, Howards End (1992). According to Wilby, there were only two read-throughs and no rehearsals before filming began. When the love scene between him and Rupert Graves was shot, the two actors had barely met beforehand.
Maurice was shot on location at King's College, where Forster was educated and later served as one of the school's governing fellows. The production made particularly beautiful use of the college's world-renowned Gothic chapel. Other scenes were filmed for the most part at Wilbury Park, a Palladian estate in southwest England. Various locations around London as well as the docks at Gloucester were also used.
The film premiered at the 1987 Venice Film Festival, where Ivory was awarded a Silver Lion for his direction (which he shared with Italian director Ermanno Olmi), while Wilby and Grant jointly received the Best Actor award. Richard Robbins also took top music honors for his score. Maurice received an Academy Award nomination for Jenny Beavan and John Bright's costume design.
Director: James Ivory
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Screenplay: Kit Hesketh-Harvey and James Ivory, based on the novel by E.M. Forster
Cinematography: Pierre Lhomme
Editing: Katherine Wenning
Art Direction: Peter James, Brian Savegar
Original Music: Richard Robbins
Cast: James Wilby (Maurice Hall), Hugh Grant (Clive Durham), Rupert Graves (Alec Scudder), Denholm Elliott (Doctor Barry), Billie Whitelaw (Mrs. Hall).
by Rob Nixon