Was Merchant Ivory’s Maurice just too gay for the 1980s?

Starring Hugh Grant and James Wilby, the passionate gay love story Maurice could have been a Call Me by Your Name for the 80s. Thirty years later, has its time finally come?

23 July 2018

By Alex Davidson

Maurice (1987)

Call Me by Your Name (2017) is one of the most acclaimed LGBTQ+ films of the last decade, and was hailed as an instant classic by several enthusiastic critics. Time will be the judge of that, but perhaps the most surprising aspect of Luca Guadagnino’s fresh and youthful film is that it was written by a man in his late 80s with a reputation for tasteful period dramas.

In fact, the films James Ivory, screenwriter of Call Me by Your Name, made with producer (and domestic partner) Ismail Merchant are far more provocative than received wisdom would suggest. Queer themes abound in their work together, with their marvellous 1984 adaptation of Henry James’ The Bostonians playing up the lesbianism of Vanessa Redgrave’s character.

Call Me by Your Name (2017), written by James Ivory

Ivory is no prude. Just a few weeks after winning the best adapted screenplay Oscar, Ivory complained about Guadagnino’s decision to feature barely any nudity in the film, with the director preferring instead to “pan the camera out of the window toward some trees” (Ivory’s interviews always make for a good read).

Ivory’s bravest work, however, remains a gay film released in 1987, at a time of hysteria and vicious homophobia.

Name a Merchant Ivory film. Chances are you have gone for one of their E.M. Forster adaptations. Probably A Room with a View (1985) or Howards End (1992). Both are superbly acted, beautiful melodramas that deserve their considerable acclaim. Yet in 1987, between these two films, producer Merchant and director Ivory released the riskiest film of their careers: an adaptation of Forster’s novel Maurice.

Forster began writing the book in the 1910s, although it wasn’t published until 1971, a year after the author’s death. The film tells the tale of Maurice (James Wilby), a man who falls in love with two very different men – upper-class Clive (Hugh Grant) and gamekeeper Scudder (Rupert Graves) – at a time when male homosexuality was illegal (same-sex relationships would not be partially decriminalised until 1967).

A Room with a View was a commercial and critical hit, and the winner of three Oscars and five BAFTAs. Maurice, by contrast, lost money at the box office, and was nominated for just one Oscar, for costume design. What went wrong?

Many believe that Maurice was simply too ‘gay’ for 1980s audiences. It’s a tempting interpretation, but it’s far from the whole story. Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), a gay love story between the son of a Pakistani immigrant and an ex-National Front member, had been an unlikely hit. By 1987, gay sex among the roaring posh boys had become a familiar trope. The 1981 TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, featuring an ambiguous relationship between Charles (Jeremy Irons) and the flamboyantly gay Sebastian (Anthony Andrews), had been a huge ratings success for ITV and was nominated in almost every BAFTA category. Another film had been more critical of the upper classes: the excellent Another Country (1984), starring Rupert Everett as a young version of future Cambridge spy Guy Burgess, was a sharp, bitter dissection of privilege and prejudice.

Maurice (1987)

Yet although these excellent dramas featured gay men in love, none were as passionate or as celebratory as Maurice.

Imagining how contemporary audiences might consider the release of Maurice, the New York Times hypothetically pondered whether “so defiant a salute to homosexual passion should really be welcomed during a spiralling AIDS crisis”. In the context of the article, this statement is clearly not the view of the author, although it has been quoted as evidence of homophobia elsewhere. Nonetheless, the AIDS panic and resultant shaming of gay men in the press makes the existence of Maurice all the more remarkable.

Hugh Grant’s Clive is the ultimate safe-sex advocate. He doesn’t even believe in sex. So consumed is he by self-loathing, and a horror of his own homosexuality, that his love affair with Maurice is sex-free.

Compare that with Maurice’s far steamier sessions with Scudder – although no sex scenes are shown (gay sex scenes in 80s films were extremely rare outside of porn), the camera lingers approvingly on Rupert Graves’s naked body.

Maurice (1987)

If Clive is the sexual equivalent of a timid peck on the cheek, conforming to the disapproving constraints of society’s values, both in the 1920s and the 80s, then Scudder is a shame-free rogering in a toilet cubicle, and a defiant two fingers up to reactionary homophobes.

Unlike A Room with a View, Maurice didn’t feature any big star names. James Wilby was a relative newcomer. Hugh Grant was seven years away from becoming a megastar courtesy of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). And it isn’t a criticism of the film to note that almost everyone in the film is more interesting than the title character. Although seeing Maurice transition from tormented virgin to happy, as-liberated-as-you-can-be-in-the-1910s gay man is a moving journey, Clive is more charismatic, Scudder is sexier, and everyone else gets a few juicy scenes to play with. Ben Kingsley’s frosty doctor, noting wryly that “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature”, is a particularly highlight.

Maurice (1987)

Wilby is very good as Maurice, and shared the best actor award at Venice with Grant, but by the end even Ivory has decided that Clive is the more intriguing character. No spoiler here, but the final few minutes of film, which culminate with a shot of Clive, rather than Maurice, are what elevates the film to true greatness, making it a real rarity in queer cinema from the 80s.

LGBTQ+ rights in the UK have improved hugely since Maurice was released. Legislation to allow same-sex marriage was finally passed in England, Wales and Scotland under David Cameron’s government (a sharp contrast to how the Tory party regarded gay people two decades earlier). Thatcher’s homophobic Section 28, forbidding the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by local authorities, was repealed in the early 2000s.

In 2018, Hugh Grant gave a highly praised performance as disgraced MP Jeremy Thorpe, accused of trying to arrange the murder of his former lover Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw), in A Very English Scandal, a universally adored drama whose warm reception is very different from how Maurice was considered by audiences in 1987. Meanwhile, British films about gay lives, such as Weekend (2011), Pride (2014) and God’s Own Country (2017) are reaching young audiences and offering positive and empowering portrayals of gay men.

They all owe a debt to Maurice – a film that told an unashamedly queer story at a time of intense homophobia.

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