J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Merchant Ivory’s Maurice

Even though E.M. Forster’s twice-revised posthumous novel of the love that dare not speak its name was not published until after his death, a non-canonical ending still circulates in some editions. On the advice of a few trusted friends, Forster discarded a years-after-the-fact postscript—and so did the characteristically classy Merchant Ivory adaptation. In honor of its thirtieth anniversary, a pristine 4K restoration of James Ivory’s Maurice (trailer here) returns to theaters in New York this Friday.

Maurice (pronounced “Morris”) Hall is a middle-class striver, whereas Clive Durham is to the manor born, but when they meet at Cambridge, their mutual attraction is undeniable. Unfortunately, in early 1910s England, it is also illegal. Ironically, it is Durham who makes the first move. Although initially shocked, Hall quickly becomes much more accepting of their orientation and maybe a bit more reckless than Durham would prefer.

Soon after leaving Cambridge, Durham breaks off their romantic relationship, spooked by the public disgrace of a former classmate. The two men maintain an ostensibly platonic friendship, but their secret past is always hovering over their heads. Yet, it is during Hall’s awkward visits to Durham’s estate that he meets a certain under-gamekeeper by the name of Scudder. (Gamekeepers just seem to get a lot of action in English literature, don’t they?)

Frankly, A Room with a View is probably the best Marchant-Ivory Forster adaptation, but Maurice is still a finely crafted period production. Unlike agonizingly reserved M-I films such as the masterful Remains of the Day (the full greatness of which is still not sufficiently recognized, despite its eight Oscar nominations), Maurice has a slight tendency towards the melodramatic. However, it is at its best when depicting the complicated way Hall’s strained relationship with Durham continues to evolve.

In all fairness, Hugh Grant is excellent in the role of Durham, but it is uncomfortably meta watching him fret over a possible scandal in light of the actor’s own well publicized vice bust. In contrast, James Wilby’s Hall is a bit Jekyll-and-Hyde-like, whipsawing back and forth between painful sincerity and brusque aloofness (A Handful of Dust from the following year probably still represents his best work). Rupert Graves is almost unrecognizable, but impressively intense as the rough, passionate Scudder. Yet, it is the crafty veterans Simon Callow, Barry Foster, Denholm Elliott, and Sir Ben Kingsley who consistently steal the show with small but colorful (and critically important) supporting turns.

Partly shot on location at King’s College, Maurice is a handsome film that captures the stateliness and stifling conformity of the characters’ privileged milieu. It certainly looks like a Merchant Ivory film, which is always a good thing. Respectfully recommended for fans of the sort of literate British historical dramas James Ivory perfected with his longtime producing partner Ismail Merchant, Maurice opens this Friday (5/19) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

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