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26. Maurice (1987), dir. James Ivory

This one I saw a week ago with the lovely [personal profile] glitzfrau at the Hyde Park Picture House, in all its newly-restored 4K glory. I love Forster, and his work always seems to inspire excellence in screen adaptations, but this one has always meant the most to me I think. I saw it first some time in my early teens - I'm not sure exactly when but I would guess aged about 14 - when it was broadcast on Channel 4, and remember sitting up for hours afterwards on top of a chest of drawers which sat in the bay-window of my bedroom, looking out through an open window over the dark, quiet street while summer rain dripped in the trees and climbing plants outside, and wallowing in the feel of it. By then I'd already had multiple powerful crushes on other girls or teachers at school, but I had never before seen anything at that time which presented queer attraction as openly as this, let alone suggested that it could be good and fulfilling or might turn out well. It seems the film has had a similar sort of impact on many people over the years.

I've watched it at least once since, but not for a long time now I think - a good fifteen years, I'd say. But it's always stayed with me, and coming back to it now I am not at all surprised. It's not just the subject-matter, but how incredibly well-crafted the film itself is in every possible respect. Almost every shot in it is absolutely iconic, not a line of the dialogue is wasted, and although the musical soundtrack is beautiful and well-deployed, it also gets so much out of silence - still, high-angle shots of Cambridge, lingering on characters' pained faces, etc. Above all, though, I was struck by how well-structured the whole thing is. It's inherently a film of two halves because of the way it tells the story of Maurice's two successive relationships - one ultimately unhappy, but also leading the way towards the other, where he finds his fulfilment. Actually, in that respect it reminded me very much of the 1963 Cleopatra, with its Julius Caesar half and its Antony half, though Forster laid down that structure for his book long before that film was dreamt of.

But anyway, what that allows, and what Merchant & Ivory really brought out of the book, is an incredible series of resonances, so that almost every scene throughout the film resonates with and calls forwards or backwards to a fellow in the other half. I mean things like Maurice having his boxing gloves with him from the start in Cambridge, to be followed up by his efforts in the East End boxing club later; Maurice climbing in through the window of Clive's room and then Scudder later doing the same to Maurice; Maurice writing to Clive that he gets no sleep and begging him to answer his letters while he's in Greece and Alec later writing exactly the same to Maurice from his boat-house; Maurice saying in the tutorial at the start, when Risley is arguing that words are the only things which matter, that no, it's deeds which matter, and then at the end coming to tell Durham what he has done and being full of joy at Alec's deed of not getting on the boat to Argentina.

A lot of this is there already in Forster, as I established during a hasty skim through the book after I got home, but not all of it. It's very clear that every line, every shot, every moment in the film was incredibly carefully thought through with the eyes of fine craftsmen so that it would convey the maximum amount of meaning - like the water dripping though the ceiling of Clive Durham's house to reflect the rotten sham of his marriage, or the final scene of him carefully and purposefully closing and bolting his windows to the memory of Maurice. Yet it never feels hokey or Oh So Symbolic - there is enough room for the characters to breathe and to be three-dimensional to prevent that.

One interesting choice is that the film is very deliberately and specifically set in the run-up to the First World War through repeated on-screen captions which date each stage in the development of the story so that it finishes some time in 1913. My skim through the novel suggests this did not originate there (though [personal profile] glitzfrau, who somehow read the whole thing that evening, may know better than me). The novel was originally written during 1913 to '14, but it doesn't include any explicit internal dating, and could take place any time in the late Victorian or early Edwardian periods. In fact it's tempting to read the scenes in King's as based on Forster's own undergraduate years - that is 1897 to 1901, when the Provost there was one M. R. James, then at the height of his own Platonic friendship with James McBryde.

Going back to the film, repeatedly reminding the viewer that war is approaching perhaps casts a pall over the happy ending, since it implies that whatever Maurice and Alec may have built will be shattered to pieces in the trenches within a year. (In the book, by contrast, they simply fade into a sort of unseen fantasy-Arcadia.) But I suppose it is an inevitable element of how we now look back to that period, and especially its upper classes. Merchant and Ivory put enough casual snobbery and misogyny into the mouths of both Maurice and Clive to mean it is a world which has to fall.

Meanwhile, the image of Maurice and Clive raptly imbibing Monty's ghost stories isn't the only enticing inter-text to be had from watching the film now. Merchant and Ivory clearly knew what they were about when they casually dropped Helena Bonham-Carter into the audience at the cricket match, for all the world as though Lucy Honeychurch had called by from A Room with a View. But they could not have anticipated that the scenes of Hugh Grant lurking at the back of the court-room while the verdict is read out at Risley's trial would now look quite so much like a young Jeremy Thorpe seeing a vision of his future - right down to the hat he is using to try to hide his face. They did know what they were doing when they cast him, though, as well as everyone else in the film. Very, very well done, Merchant and Ivory. Thank you profoundly for everything you put into this film.


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