Sexual Repression in Film

Maurice

Maurice 2

Director: James Ivory

Cast: Hugh Grant, James Wilby, Rupert Graves, Ben Kingsley, Denholm Elliott, Phoebe Nicholls, Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Parfitt, Simon Callow

Cinema Lovers Workshop on Sexual Repression in Film presented as part of the 4th Durban Gay and Lesbian Film Festival 2014 http://www.dglff.org.za/ on Thursday 26th June 2014 at the KZNSA Gallery, Durban.

Director James Ivory’s 1987 film Maurice is a nuanced and delicate study of sexual repression in the Edwardian era based upon the posthumously published novel by the acclaimed British novelist E. M. Forster who also penned Howards End, A Room with A View and his most famous novel, A Passage to India.

At the beginning of Maurice, Maurice Hall’s tutor, played by Simon Callow standing on an English beach instructs the young boy that “Your body is your temple”, a sentiment echoed by the Victorians.

The film moves to 1909 when Maurice Hall played by James Wilby and Clive Durham played by Hugh Grant are at Cambridge together and over a classical tutorial discuss the notion of words versus deeds. The post-Victorian early Edwardian attitude towards sex was prohibitive and repressive.

Whilst reading Classics at Cambridge, there is an early reference to the “Unspeakable Vice of the Greeks” which is seen by the Edwardians as a strong rejection of Western Christian principles in favour of Mediterranean hedonism and unadulterated sexual desires. Maurice also establishes a close link between all male sports such as cricket and boxing and the forbidden homosexual love between men which was naturally more than fraternal.

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Viewers must bear in mind that Maurice is set not even 20 years after the infamous trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 when he was accused and convicted of sodomy and sentenced to two years hard labour so beautifully documented in the 1997 Brian Gilbert film Wilde starring Stephen Fry, which forced the majority of repressed homosexuals in late Victorian London to flee to the continent.

Under the shadow of the Oscar Wilde affair, homosexuality was considered the worst crime in the calendar, making the environment of Edwardian England sexually repressive for the lead characters in Maurice. Ultimately Maurice charts the doomed love affair which starts at Cambridge of Maurice Hall who was suburban middle class and Clive Durham which came from Landed Gentry and was a symbol of inherited wealth being the only son in the family who would inherit the country estate Pendersleigh Park.

Interestingly, many Edwardian homosexuals to avoid scandal married each other’s sisters to continue an illicit gay love affair post marriage. Many suspected homosexuals in England prior to the outbreak of World War 1 were arrested on charges of soliciting and immorality. This is exemplified in the film by the scandalous arrest of Lord Risley, who was arrested while trying to pick up a soldier in an alleyway and publicly named and shamed in the press, suffering a similar fate to Oscar Wilde without the associated sensational publicity. Lord Risley was sentenced to six months hard labour.

In this repressive society, the fearful and closeted Clive Durham rebukes Maurice’s affections for fear of scandal and being charged with immorality especially as he is due to inherit the family’s gorgeous country estate. By 1912 and after a brief visit to Greece, Durham returns and breaks off all romance with Maurice and promptly marries the naïve Anne Woods played by Phoebe Nicholls recently seen in Downton Abbey leaving Maurice angry, jilted and heartbroken.

Maurice turns his sexual frustration to boxing in Bermondsey and considers that he is suffering from an unspeakable disease consults a doctor and a hypnotist Lasker-Jones wonderfully played by Ben Kingsley who aptly suggests that Maurice flee England and live abroad in a country more accepting like France or Italy.

The third part of the film takes place around Pendersleigh in 1913, the country estate owned by Clive Durham who is approaching his nuptials with Anne. At this estate works an unconventional and almost pastoral figure Scudder beautifully played by Rupert Graves, who is an underkeeper and not afraid to wear his sexuality on his sleeve. The character development of Maurice is evident in the film and soon he succumbs to the opportune sexual advances of Scudder who enters into Maurice’s bedroom at Penderleigh through an open window and promptly seduces him. The central character’s development goes from emotional innocence to sexual experience and is expertly played by Wilby who along with Hugh Grant both won Best Actor awards at the 1987 Venice International Film Festival.

In a series of interesting hypnosis scenes between Kingsley and Wilby, it is suggested that a cure for his characters sexual urges to those of the same sex should be to play sport and carry a gun. As Maurice and Scudders sexual relationship blossoms within the confines of a Country Estate, the scenes with Maurice by the window become symbolic of his character being trapped in a sexually repressive environment with Scudder being the one who ultimately releases Maurice from this sexual and moral dilemma. Scudder plans on fleeing the strict rules of Pendersleigh and emigrating to the Argentine and whose only crime is bring guilty of sensuality.

Maurice and Alec Scudder’s eventual reunification at the boat house is a way for Maurice to decisively escape the repressive environment he find himself in, ultimately leaving the pompous Clive Durham, repressed and stuck in a loveless marriage to Anne Woods. The closing shot of the film is one of Clive Durham closing the window and himself into a stifled existence, symbolic of a generation of Edwardian young men who have yielded to social conventions like marriage and sexual repression. A repression which was ultimately was to be broken by the outbreak of World War II in 1914.

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After the success of A Room with a View, Maurice was a continuation in a long line of lucrative and Oscar winning Merchant Ivory Productions and securing James Ivory a Best Director prize at the 1987 Venice Film Festival and can be seen as a prelude to his more successful films like Howards End and the adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day.

In terms of the history of queer cinema, director James Ivory’s Maurice is a superb cinematic starting point to examining what it was like to be gay in a sexually repressive environment over a century ago. Thankfully society and the film industry has developed significantly since then, flinging open the glass closet doors of Hollywood.

Suggested Reading:

Maurice by written E. M. Forster

Morgan, A Biography of E. M. Forster written by Nicola Beauman

 

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