James Ivory won a long overdue Oscar when he took it home best adapted screenplay for Call Me by Your Name. It was surprise international hit and widely acclaimed. Since then there has been some renewed interest in Ivory’s large body of work, which he made with his long-term life as well as producing partner Ismail Merchant. It was clearly a very loving and productive relationship between the two men, but also deeply subversive for the time: gay and interracial, as Ivory is a white American and Merchant was Indian.
Maurice is probably the most thematically similar film to Call Me by Your Name, with it being essentially a gay love story, but stylistically they are very different. Maurice is based on the E. M. Forster novel, which wasn’t published till after the author’s death, Merchant-Ivory were best known for their highly acclaimed adaptations of his novels, like Howard’s End and A Room with a View. Forster was apparently never sure of the worth of this obviously autobiographical book, and kept it in the drawer during his life.
The film. as the title suggests. is about Maurice Hall (James Wilby), a young, upper-class student at Cambridge who falls madly in love with the even more privileged Clive Durham (Hugh Grant). They don’t have sex, but the two of them clearly have that urge. Given the times and the fact that Clive has a promising career, he doesn’t want to risk it all with a gay relationship, so you know this relationship will never transform into the one both want but Maurice in particular is desperate for. The last third of the film is him struggling with his sexuality and fitting into this class-based society. However, it has a happy ending, unlike many gay stories, especially from the time it was written in 1913–1914, or even when the film came out in 1987.
When the film premiered, was the height of the AIDS pandemic and the notion of making a positive (if tormented) gay love story was a radical idea. It was highly acclaimed in the states, but according to Ivory it was bashed all over the UK, with the Times writing “is so defiant a salute to homosexual passion really to be welcomed during a spiraling AIDS crisis?” The funny thing, according to Ivory, was that most of the big British film critics at the time were gay—but they were so scared to be positive about a film that was unabashedly pro-gay, given the stigma attached to homosexuality at the time.
Despite its lukewarm reception, Maurice has grown to become one of most acclaimed films in the Merchant-Ivory canon, and is an example of how by choosing the right material in their period dramas they were able to subvert the clichés of the genre. The two leads are well cast: Hugh Grant had his floppy-haired upper-class thing down to a T before all those romantic comedies in the ’90s. He actually early on appeared in some really interesting films by good directors, including Ken Russell, Roman Polanski and Michael Radford, as well as James Ivory. In recent years it seems like he has been able to get back to more challenging roles, for example in A Very English Scandal (another gay love story about class) and the sci-fi epic Cloud Atlas. In any case, Maurice probably should’ve been a big arthouse film at the time, but it was probably “too gay” to be critically embraced.
The two-disc release from BFI has a whole host of features, including numerous interviews with James Ivory, an interview with James Wilby, a five-minute interview with Wilby and Grant, deleted scenes, original and re-released trailers, and an audio commentary by Prof. Claire Monk. The booklet includes numerous pieces on the film, including some by Ivory himself.