AT Oxford, I remember, one often spent the intervals between parties trying to guess who, in the after-life, would become successful; to be exact, famously successful. Many for whom the golden time was predicted fell into obscurity, still more into stockbroking. Some thought novel-writing the path to earthly glory, others, acting.
While so far none of my university friends has produced a successful novel, since writing this column I have on several occasions looked in bemusement at a familiar face grown large and unfamiliar on the silver screen: Julia Verdin, in The Fourth Protocol, Imogen Stubbs in Nanou, another Paul Newman in Half Moon Street and now Hugh Grant. To declare, therefore, that I still know and like Hugh (who used to be called Hughie, but fame has cost him a syllable) may seem like a jettisoning of objectivity. But then his new film Maurice (Cannon, Shaftesbury Ave, '15') was never born of objectivity.
It was adapted by the Merchant-Ivory partnership, and the excellent script (by another friend, Kit HeskethHervey) derived from EM Forster's novel of 1914. As far as I know, apart from writing this novel, Forster never did anything about his homosexuality, so that Maurice is partly oblique confessional, partly wishful thinking. He rewrote it several times, but purely for personal
satisfaction: trepidation about its autobiographical aspect led him to suppress its publication "until my death and England's."
Even a decade ago when I read the book I was appalled by its sentimentality and improbability and it is these qualities above any others which make Maurice a cinematic challenge.
Maurice Hall (a very impressive debut by James Wilby) is the product of Edwardian suburbia and boarding school, polite, respectable and conscionable, living with two sisters and — like Forster — a widowed mother. At Cambridge, he meets Clive Durham (Grant), an articulate, classically-chiselled landowner, an Hon, never quite a rebel, who has sublimated his sexuality in Hellenistic idealism. He encourages Maurice to question the ethics of the suburbs.
Intense friendship leads to declarations of love, all — at Clive's insistence — platonic. But after university, with Maurice a stockbroker and Clive a barrister, social requirements threaten the relationship. Clive capitulates to family pressure to marry, produce an heir and go into politics. After the marriage,
Maurice, betrayed and isolated, consults doctors and hypnotists but on a subsequent visit to Clive's is seduced by the undergamekeeper, Scudder (Rupert Graves). Maurice closes naively, with Maurice and Scudder putting aside their respective backgrounds, gun-dogs and government bonds, for love.
The obsession of early twentieth-century writers with gamekeepers deserves academic study. Forster could have documented a romance with a doctor, don or dentist more credibly: his choice of a gamekeeper may indicate a disdain for social division and certainly suggests an interest in rough trade. As for D H Lawrence, if the deviant Scudder had worked for Lady Chatterley, we would haver have heard the end of it. And Forster, much happier with the bourgeoisie in Kent or amidst the frescoes of Giotto, is particularly nervous when discussing country life; hence Scudder, a name usually inflicted on Yorkshire terriers. But Rupert Graves copes well with this impediement: grubby, forelock at the ready and goodwill in a clotted cream accent.
Maurice, then, demands an unnegotiable concession: suspension of scepticism. But once that allowance has been made, there is much to commend — even Forster might have liked it. The young triumvirate is excellent. A troupe of character actors carve for themselves predictably polished cameos. Allegri's Miserere soars on the soundtrack, breathless with this film's shameless visual splendour. (Yes, this is English tourist board cinema, giving Americans the aspects of England they want. But how well it is done.) The Americans have complained, rightly, of Maurice's excessive length; that aside, this is near-unimpeachable literary cinema, going beyond mere costume drama to show us a time constricted by hypocritical, uncompassionate intolerance.