This Merchant Ivory production of EM Forster’s novel of self-discovery Maurice was one of the first gay films I remember watching and it remains a remarkably touching watch now 25 years after it was made. A tale of gay love in the early 20th century, its poignancy is all the more moving for knowing that the novel was never published in Forster’s lifetime, cognisant of society’s (and the law’s) slow changing attitudes towards homosexuality, he withheld it from public consumption.
The story follows Maurice Hall from school to university and then into the real world full of careers, war and marriage as he struggles to come to terms with his sexuality in a world where being gay is illegal. From a typically bashful initiation into the facts of life from a school professor to a Cambridge University full of possibility where the chance of love with a man first rears its head and then on into adult life where the slow acceptance of who he really is and what he really wants comes hand in hand with him falling in love with a man from a lower class, bringing further complications as the vagaries of the English class system are added to his trials.
And it is all beautifully done. Unashamedly romantic, it is the kind of love story that really does transcend labels. The first time that Maurice touches a man, in this case a youthful Hugh Grant as Clive, is almost unbearably dreamy, the kind of caress that one dreams of receiving and that sense of deep feeling is something that is carried through the whole film. James Wilby is excellent as the title character, sketching the painful self-loathing and fear at the heart of this man who simply wants to love the way he wants to and through the emotional peaks and troughs, he is always compellingly sympathetic.
The additional journey of his nascent class conscience is also excellently done, as Rupert Graves’ swarthy gardener steals his way into Maurice’s bed and then his heart in a romance only the hardest of hearts could resist; their sense of possibility heightened by Clive’s submission to societal norm and an unhappy marriage. A few familiar faces pop up in the supporting cast too: Simon Callow’s kindly professor explaining the facts of life on a beach, Harriet Thorpe’s twinkling barmaid with just a hint of bawdiness and a rare chance to see Phoebe Nicholls smiling! But all in all a gorgeous film and a masterly reminder of how universal a good love story can be.