Tuesday, September 26, 2017

MAURICE: Blu-ray (Merchant/Ivory, 1987) Cohen Media Group

Maurice (1987) is the bittersweet tale of a man desperate to reconcile the ferocity of his love for another man with the hypocrisies (and hypocrites) of his time. It is also, I think, more than a smarting poke at the stalwart pretense of the English to deny even the existence of ‘the unspeakable act’. Lest we forget several important factors regarding Merchant/Ivory’s endeavor to bring E.M. Forster’s novel to the screen.  The novel, first conceived in 1913, was posthumously published after Forster’s death in 1970 to protect him from the stigma of authoring it and only a scant three years after homosexuality itself had been decriminalized in England by an Act of Parliament. The buggery law first cast in stone in 1533, making sodomy a criminal offense punishable by death, would remain on the books in England until 1861. But its ‘woe betide’ humiliation even after the threat of execution had been lifted (too late to save Oscar Wilde) would remain in effect long into the latter half of the 20th century. Interestingly, Forster’s innate contempt for private school herein seems to be pitched at the cloistered halls of higher academia, when in fact his genuine disdain was more centralized on preparatory learning that he once described as creating “well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds and undeveloped hearts”.  Indeed, the years Forster spent at King’s College proved among his most fondly recalled, writing in 1897, “...they taught the perky boy he was not everything and the limp boy that he might be something.”  Even so, Forster – a closeted homosexual – was to keep his opinions and his more explorative written critiques on the subject to himself; partly in fear of reprisals.
One could scarcely classify the 1980’s as the more laissez faire decade that embraced homosexuality as commonplace. The stigma by then had shifted from the act itself to its apparently viable byproduct – AIDS – branded ‘the gay disease’ by the close-minded and fear-mongering, at least until a good many non-practicing heterosexuals (women and children) began acquiring and dying from the dreaded auto-immune affliction. Thus, when director James Ivory approached King’s College, the custodians of Forster’s manuscripts, with an eagerness to make a movie of Maurice, he was politely ‘encouraged’ to reconsider another property from the author’s cannon in its stead – any property, except Maurice. Steadfastly, Ivory plied the college with promises of making a tasteful adaptation. While Merchant/Ivory had already illustrated their formidable talent for handcrafting movie art of the highest order on a shoestring budget, Ivory was on even more secure ground with King’s herein; having released his first Forster adaptation, A Room With A View (1985) to monumental review and effect on both sides of the Atlantic.
Not surprisingly, Maurice would prove hardly as popular, if generally as profitable; the picture’s subject matter alone suggesting imminent backlash from puritanical audiences and critics. Determined to do justice to Forster’s gentle construction and hopeful denouement, Ivory resisted hiring cameraman, Tony Pierce-Roberts who had achieved wondrous results for him on A Room With A View. He also eschewed the company’s usual zest for screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala in favor of his own tag team efforts with screenwriter, Kit-Hesketh-Harvey. As his cinematographer, Ivory approached Pierre Lhomme on the assumption a Frenchman would be worldly, even accepting of the content, and thus less inclined to make something overtly romantic, overly sentimental or perhaps even stoically restrained from it. What emerges is another visual masterpiece to be sure, employing stunning usage of its various locations. Regrettably, the excursion is not entirely successful and on occasion quite antiseptic, even remote in its storytelling.
The performances in the picture are uniformly quite wonderful; from Simon Callow’s prudently silly ‘educator’, Mr. Ducie (crudely sketching a man’s ‘membrum wirrilis’ and woman’s ‘waggeena’ in the sand with a subliminally Freudian stiff bit of kindling to illustrate for the impressionable eponymous character ‘the sacred mystery of sex’) to Ben Kingsley’s hypnotist/quack, Lasker-Jones (reporting to possess ‘a cure’ for Maurice’s ‘bad feelings’), to Denholm Elliott’s Doctor Barry (incredulously inspecting Maurice with his monocle for a venereal disease), there is not a false note among the supporting roster, and certainly none to be had in the trifecta of male lovers on whom the central plot pivots; Maurice Hall (superbly realized by James Wilby as sensitive, charming and insecure), Clive Durham (played with a particularly affecting arrogance by Hugh Grant) and finally, Alec Scudder (perfectly pitched into the fray with a ruthless abandonment by Rupert Graves). For Grant, Maurice proved a breakout; the actor – yet on the cusp of international fame in 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, having appeared in only one student film and actually began his professional career as a stand-up comedian. As Grant and Wilby had worked together before, and actually become good friends, their amorous thwarted flagrante delicto in the movie took on a fascinating – if frenetic – passion. As director James Ivory would later recall, “They just went for it without hesitation.” In hindsight, it is the discernment of the English that Ivory and his entourage have captured so well in Maurice; the intentionally stymieing vapors of a fish-eyed dowager (Judy Parfitt as Mrs. Durham), interested only in the gossip value of a burgeoning scandal, or the less enterprising, though equally as destructive ardor of a naïve, yet clingy newlywed (Phoebe Nicholls as Clive’s beloved, Anne), as yet unaware she is ‘the beard’ to stave off suspicions about her husband.
Although Forster conceived of Maurice in 1913 he continued to revise his manuscript until 1932; resurrecting the property again in 1959 to work on it for one full year. Written as ‘traditional bildungsroman’ (a novel of character formation), Maurice’s archetypes are, in fact, based on real people. Nevertheless, Forster was devoted to his protagonist coming to a ‘good end’ by ‘the end’ of his story. Respectful of his mother, Forster only shared his manuscript with a few friends he knew could be trusted to keep it a secret. Due to public and legal attitudes regarding homosexuality, Maurice would remain an unfulfilled part of Forster’s literary canon in his own lifetime, until 1971. Either directly or indirectly owing to its subject matter, the novel’s consideration remains as a ‘minor’ work when directly compared to Forster’s irrefutable masterpieces, Howards End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924). In re-conceiving the novel for the screen, director, James Ivory would insist on a level of authenticity both relevant to Forster, but equally as in tune with the ‘turmoil’ of the present age; his own passion distinctly heartfelt toward people who have “decided for themselves how they want to live and what their true feelings are and whether they’re going to live honestly with them or deny them.” As Ivory would later punctuate for his critics, “That’s no different. Nothing’s any easier for young people. I felt it was quite relevant.”
King's College has denied their initial apprehensions to allow Ivory his tackle of the book were predicated on any sort of malignant or lingering prejudice, but on their assessment of Maurice as an inferior work in Forster's authorship and fearing, perhaps, no movie would be able to ‘enhance’ it as 'great literature'. Herein, the college was likely unprepared for producer, Ismail Merchant’s persuasiveness – both legendary and affecting. As co-collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was embroiled in putting the finishing touches on her novel, Three Continents, another Merchant/Ivory alumni, Kit Hesketh-Harvey was seconded to the cause through his sister, journalist and author, Sarah Sands, the wife of Julian Sands; A Room With A View’s leading man and, in fact, Ivory’s first choice to play the titular title character in Maurice.  For whatever reason, Sands balked at the offer after having first accepted it; his departure followed by John Malkovich, originally slated to play the quack/hypnotist, Lasker-Jones. Respecting Jhabvala’s craftsmanship, Hesketh-Harvey’s final draft was given her once over, Jhabvala suggesting the arrest and imprisonment of a university colleague, the surreptitious Lord Risley (Mark Tandy), serve as the impetus for Clive Durham’s startling conversion  to heterosexuality. Also omitted in the rewrite, Maurice’s childhood affinity for another schoolboy, Dickie. Jhabvala amplified the influence of Lord Risley as an Oscar Wildean counterpoint sentenced, at least in the movie, to six months hard labor. In the novel Risley is not imprisoned for his homosexual conduct. Finally, despite his diminished status as something of a charlatan, Lasker-Jones is the only person in the movie empathetic to Maurice’s psychological and social situation.
As with virtually all Merchant/Ivory fare gone before it, Maurice was made on a very tight budget - $2.6 million when the average cost of making a movie hovered between $15 and $25 million. Achieving extraordinary visuals on such limited funds, Maurice’s shoot was complicated by inclement weather, stretching the schedule to 54 days, even with Ivory working his cast and crew at 6-day weeks to complete it. A good deal of the picture’s opulence hails from the ivy-covered halls and quadrangles of King's College; also, the stately manor and grounds at Wilbury Park, a Palladian house in Wiltshire doubling for Clive’s ancestral home, Pendersleigh. Debuting at the Venice Film Festival, Maurice won several prominent awards, including a Silver Lion for James Ivory and twin ‘Best Actor’ statuettes, jointly given to James Wilby and Hugh Grant. It would go on to receive near unanimous praise from the critics for its handsome and painterly production values; also, its intelligent script and superb acting, and finally, for its uniquely dignified, yet candid portrayal of gay culture. Despite these accolades, Maurice would not become another cross-continental smash for the company, arguably undervalued and unseen by the masses, yet steadily acquiring its reputation for quality ever since. Regrettably, at the time it was quietly filed away for being ‘too gay’.
Maurice begins on a windswept beach in Brighton, the eleven year old and fatherless Maurice Hall (played with supreme intelligence by Orlando Wells) given his first tutorial by a rather giddy Mr. Ducie on ‘the sacred mysteries of sex’. Ducie crudely renders a penis and vagina in the wet sand with his walking stick, explaining even more humorously the act of procreation to his prepubescent charge. Intently listening, Maurice reasons he shall never marry, to which Ducie breathes a sigh of strange relief, predicting that, in ten years’ time he shall have Maurice and his new bride to dine with him and his wife. We flash ahead to 1909, Maurice’s college years at Cambridge, along with the haughty and aristocratic Lord Risley and the uber-wealthy intellectual, Clive Durham. Durham is passionate for his friend, his confession awakening Maurice’s suppressed, but mutual feelings. The two embark on a daring love affair under the watchful eye of Dean Cornwallis (Barry Foster). Clive insists the ‘relationship’ remain platonic as to carry it any further would ‘diminish’ them both. In reality Clive is rightfully concerned for his future. As a member of the upper class, he will inherit his father’s estate and likely pursue a promising career in politics. Disobeying Cornwallis one too many times, Maurice is expelled from Cambridge. A close friend of the family, Doctor Barry chides Maurice for inflicting unnecessary scandal and pain on his mother. But shortly thereafter, Maurice begins anew as a stockbroker in London. Meanwhile, his affair with Clive continues; the two paying weekend visits to each other’s ancestral homes under the watchful eye of Clive’s games keeper, Alec Scudder, and his personal manservant, Simcox, whose veiled inference he knows what Clive is up to is quickly admonished and cut to size with a threat of dismissal by the master of the house.
All seems, if not right, than adequate between Clive and Maurice until Lord Risley is arrested for attempting to seduce a guardsman (Breffni McKenna) at the local pub. Risley is convicted but shown clemency by the presiding magistrate who sentences him to six months hard labor. Divesting himself of his association with Risley, Clive departs for an extended holiday in Greece. Alas, upon his return home he suffers a minor nervous breakdown following Risley's suicide and fears a similar fate. He breaks off his friendship with Maurice. Under pressure from his widowed mother to marry, Clive takes to wife Anne, a thoroughly naïve creature of stature and breeding and invests himself in establishing a ‘normal life’ nestled in Pendersleigh's rural domesticity. Utterly distraught, Maurice seeks Dr. Barry’s counsel. Barry dismisses Maurice’s confession as pure ‘rubbish’, encouraging him similarly to take a girl of his choosing to bed to prove he is a man. Instead, Maurice turns to Dr. Lasker-Jones, a charlatan peddling a cure via hypnosis for homosexuality.  As though to rub salt in an old wound, Clive invites Maurice to stay with him and Anne at Pendersleigh. Maurice attends and is quietly observed by Scudder who is due to immigrate to Argentina later in the year. Scudder is secure in his observations and boldly scales a ladder to the open second story window of the bedroom where Maurice is restlessly lying awake. Scudder confides in Maurice and the men indulge their sexual impulses. The next day, Simcox discovers dried mud on the bedroom carpet and hints he knows Scudder and Maurice have since become lovers.
Now, Maurice receives a rather cryptic letter from Scudder proposing they meet at the Pendersleigh boathouse. Believing Scudder to be a blackmailer Maurice hastily departs for another session of treatments with Lasker-Jones who warns him England “has always been disinclined to accept human nature”. The quack/physician also advises Maurice consider immigrating to a country where homosexuality is no longer a crime. Meanwhile, Scudder travels to London, meeting up with Maurice at the British Museum where the blackmail misunderstanding is resolved. Scudder is in love with Maurice and vice versa. The men spend another night together in a hotel with Scudder suggesting his departure to Argentina is now imminent. Maurice arrives at port with a parting gift, only to realize Scudder has missed the sailing. Forlorn, Maurice returns to Pendersleigh to confide in Clive his genuine love for Alec. On the surface, Clive is repulsed by this confession. Secretly however, he is morbidly jealous of Maurice’s decision to remain true to himself. Maurice returns to the boathouse, hoping to discover Scudder there. To his great surprise, Scudder is there, having forsaken his family’s ambitious plans to relocate him abroad. “Now we shan’t never be parted,” Scudder whispers. As Pendersleigh prepares itself for nightfall, a regretful Clive stares blankly from his bedroom window, imagining Maurice from his college days, blissfully waving to him. Anne approaches from behind, still obtusely unaware of her husband’s predilection. The shutters are drawn and we realize Clive’s decision to remain ‘in the closet’ has doomed him to the eternity of an unhappily ever after. Conversely, Maurice has been liberated from the guilt of loving another man.
Maurice is a ground-breaking endeavor in the pedagogy of what has since been lumped together and labeled as ‘queer cinema’. That it lacked its truest respect and reputation as this watershed in 1987 is hardly surprising, given the socio-political climate of the eighties and American movies’ frequent indulgences to portray gay characters as absurdly flamboyant clowns, set apart from the rest of society, or transiently intervening in the mainstream social fabric of society, primarily propped up for their comic amusement.  Maurice treats homosexuals with the same reverence as its heterosexual counterparts; indeed, more so, as its entire modus operandi is to peel back the veil of ‘fearful mystery’ about genuine love between men and place it on par with the amour shared between a man and a woman. For whatever reason, the emotional content of gay relationships in movies has always had a subservient connotation and correlation to the sexual act share in moments of heated passion. Unlike movies that concentrate on heterosexual romance – the art of the seduction, the ‘cute’ meeting of minds, hearts, souls and eventually – bodies – the cinema’s fascination with gay culture has frequently zeroed in on the mechanics of cheap and tawdry sexual release in lieu of genuinely felt affairs of the heart. Maurice is therefore, decidedly unique. Moreover, it remains intelligent, forthright and unvarnished about the consequences gay men face – not only under the stringency of Edwardian society, but still, as ‘tolerated’ rather than ‘accepted’ members of contemporary society.  It seeks neither to gratuitously expose young love among men as salacious, sinful, sexless or silly, but to investigate and align the precepts of love between two people as a universal neither sex-obsessed nor exclusive to heterosexual couples.
Cohen Media Group has released Maurice to Blu-ray, reportedly remastered in 1080p from restored 4K elements supervised by James Ivory and cinematographer, Pierre Lhomme.  Hmmm. Like the company’s reissue of another Merchant/Ivory classic, Howards End, Maurice is not quite the home run I was anticipating.  The pluses: a reinvigorated transfer minus virtually all age-related dirt, scratches, etc. and, with the added bonus of appearing to have no untoward digital tinkering applied to artificially sharpen the image. Bravo! Lhomme’ s naturally lit interiors are softly focused; his exteriors, full of the natural splendor of England’s lush countryside. So, kudos to Cohen for getting it right thus far. Grain structure? It’s definitely there, and thicker than I would have hoped. Natural? Well, never having seen Maurice theatrically I have no personal barometer to compare this transfer. But I can honestly say I do not think the intermittent bouts of residual softness scattered throughout this transfer are the result of Lhomme’ s diffused focus. Consider the moment after Maurice’s first hypnotism session; the image suddenly – inexplicably – murky, dull and out of focus…grainy too, as though a dupe has been inserted. There is also some odd variation in tonality during darkly lit scenes. This teeters dangerously close to black level ‘crush’ without ever actually going over the edge. The final curiosity here is color balance; the tint throughout leans to a dated sepia/jaundice yellow; the visuals looking occasionally blanched as well.
Maurice's DTS 5.1 audio is impressive, if subdued. Dialogue is crisp and subtly nuanced with solid spatial separation of the sustained SFX; a light rustling breeze, as example, with distant seagulls crying. Cohen has also afforded us the original LPCM 2.0 and a Dolby Digital 5.1. Preferences? None. They all sound good. Extras: hmmm again. There is a lot of overlap in the content…too much for my taste. We get new interviews with James Ivory and Pierre Lhomme, totaling 15 min., a Q&A session with both men which basically covers the exact same ground at 22 min. and another rather truncated ‘conversation’ with Ivory, including vintage clips of the late Ismael Merchant and Richard Robbins; at 12 min. The very best is The Story of Maurice; a half hours’ worth of sound bites from virtually all the key participants, including screenwriter, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, James Wilby and Hugh Grant. The last piece, A Director’s Perspective tips the scales at 40 min. and, predictably, offers little new or revealing once you have watched the rest of the extras herein. At just under 40 min. we get a slew of outtakes and deleted scenes hosted by James Ivory. Finally, two theatrical trailers and a handsomely produced (and very Criterion-esque) essay booklet round out the fun. Cohen has housed virtually all these extras on a second Blu-ray. We are grateful for their consolidation. Bottom line: Maurice is a picture deserving of respect. The transfer here is not exactly what I would call ‘reference quality’ but it is superior to anything yet seen on home video. Bottom line: recommended for content. Caveats on the transfer.   
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
3
EXTRAS
3

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