What to make of Maurice? Based on the posthumously published novel by E.M. Forster, created by Merchant Ivory, and starring James Wilby and Hugh Grant, the film has a pedigree that would fit it neatly beside the excellent adaptations of Forster's A Room with a View and Howards End. That's certainly a powerful draw. Yet at the same time, Maurice is very clearly a film about an issue, rather than a story, and "issue" films are always a bit iffy.
The "issue" here is male homosexuality, or in the parlance of the Edwardian setting of Maurice, the "unspeakable vice of the Greeks." Maurice Hall (James Wilby) and Clive Durham (Hugh Grant) are college friends whose close friendship develops into romantic love... a potentially explosive situation in a culture that criminalized homosexuality. Both Maurice and Clive have to work through their own responses to their newly discovered sexual orientation, and each takes a somewhat different path, resulting in tension and conflict between the two men.
The 140-minute film takes its time telling its story, which isn't such a bad thing for a story that should rely on viewers being interested in its characters and their fates. Nonetheless, Maurice remains oddly unengaging. Though the film clearly centers on Maurice's character and experiences in college and beyond, we're given no real reason to relate to him or be interested in his identity conflict, and the same holds true for Clive. James Ivory comments in one of the featurettes that one of the problems with this novel (considered one of Forster's weakest) is the basically unmotivated mid-story change of heart by Clive. The script for Maurice attempts to address this, but not particularly successfully. The end result is a story that doesn't seem to have an inherent narrative drive, making it into more of an extended character and thematic study.
The story immediately pushes the issue of homosexuality to the front and center, with the characters even discussing its place in English culture and its inherent right or wrongness. While the actors strive to make the story relevant on a personal level, Maurice remains stubbornly self-conscious about its handling of the "issue." Too hot a topic for Forster to feel comfortable publishing it in his own lifetime, homosexuality evidently remained, in this 1987 film, a touchy issue, and one that competes with the draw of the narrative on its own merits.
Maurice may be of interest to viewers as being Hugh Grant's first feature film role. Grant turns in a solid performance here, but doesn't seem to really be stretching; he seems largely to be "acting as himself" throughout the film, whereas James Wilby seems to create a greater depth in his role as the title character.
The two-disc DVD set is packaged in an attractive slim keepcase. The film is presented on the first disc, with the special features on the second disc.
Maurice's anamorphic widescreen transfer, at the film's original aspect ratio of 1.78:1, offers a solid and attractive viewing experience. Colors are clean and bright, skin tones always look natural, and the print is clean, with a generally crisp appearance. It's not a perfect transfer, as there is some grain in darker scenes and occasional noticeable edge enhancement. The contrast is generally handled well, with a satisfactory amount of detail always appearing, even in dark scenes; however, in dimly lit scenes the darkest areas of the image do tend to be a bit overly dark.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack provides a satisfactory listening experience, balancing dialogue and the theme music well throughout the film. At times, the dialogue sounds a bit flat and center-focused, but on the whole, it's a nicely done soundtrack.
There aren't as many special features here as the two-disc nature of the set would seem to suggest, but given the 140-minute running time of the film, it was probably the best move to preserve image quality by separating the bonus material.
"Conversation with the Filmmakers" is an interesting 13-minute piece that features interviews with director/co-writer James Ivory, composer Richard Robbins, and producer Ismail Merchant. Though Ivory spends the first few minutes providing a plot summary, from there the featurette enters into more interesting and original territory.
"The Story of Maurice" is a 30-minute mini-documentary that gives a fairly comprehensive overview of the creation of the film, through interviews with the main actors and the screenwriter.
We also get a section of 12 deleted scenes, running about 15 minutes. Viewers who are interested in the Merchant Ivory films in general will appreciate these, as ten of the deleted scenes have the option to be viewed with an audio commentary by James Ivory. A theatrical trailer is also included.
Maurice is a polished production, as you'd expect from Merchant Ivory. It's based on one of the weakest of E.M. Forster's novels, though, and that weakness appears to continue into the film itself, which relies on the issue of homosexuality, rather than an inherently interesting story or situation, to move the film along. It's not a bad film, but neither is it a particularly compelling one. I'll suggest this as a rental only.