I must start with a confession: I had never watched Maurice, despite its status of landmark film in the history of gay cinema. All I knew going in was that this was a newly restored version of the original movie, released in 1987. Set in the early 1910s, pre- World War I, this period drama is a coming of age story, centered around Maurice (James Wilby) and Clive (Hugh Grant), who play two Cambridge undergraduates who fall in love with each other.
Directed and co-written by James Ivory of Call Me By Your Name fame, and adapted from E.M. Forster’s novel of the same name, the love story between Maurice and Clive is set against a backdrop of morality, repression, and criminality. After meeting through a common acquaintance at university, the pair begin to spend time together and forge a bond that would define their lives for many years to come. In many ways, it is a tale as old as (gay) time. Closeted boy meets closeted boy, boys fall in love with each other, profess their love to each other in spite of the oppressed and repressed society in which they live, and then an event takes place which changes the trajectory of their relationship forever. One of them (James Wilby, as Maurice) always seems to be more willing than the other to sacrifice everything for their love, whilst the other (Hugh Grant, as Clive) wants to play it safe and quiet.
I was surprised by the openness of the story and its content, the candidness of the actors, and it made me wonder how this film would have been received in 1987 at the height of the AIDS crisis. In its content, Maurice is unashamed to show the love between the Maurice and Clive, the struggles and difficulties they endure in the discovery of their identities, and in the choices that each character makes in relation to who they feel they are. And given that the backdrop is mostly one of oppression and the potential of punishment by law, the film cleverly spends most of its time in the internal worlds of each of its main characters, in the conflict between their inner desires and external expectations, in their relationships with each other.
Many of these stories in gay cinema, very much like real life, include a choice between stepping forward into the unknown, or backward into the known. I always rejoiced with the characters which stepped forward, against all odds, and chose love, and it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve begun questioning what happens to the characters who step backward, play it safe, and give in to fear. We’re always given a partial happy ending in gay cinema, in the one who goes off into the world with a sense of freedom, but there’s a tendency to forget the ones who stay behind, looking longingly through their windows, perhaps hoping for a better day, perhaps telling themselves they’ve made the right choice.