I first saw the Merchant Ivory film Maurice in 1987, the year of its initial release. Having moved back to New York City to start college (my parents had fled the city in the 1970s for the beckoning suburban allure of New Jersey), I was rediscovering the city. It rained all afternoon the day I ventured from Inwood (past Washington Heights, the last stop in Manhattan) to 59th Street, where the Paris Theater was showing the film. One of the lenses of my glasses had been threatening to free itself from the frame, and it did so as I walked the rain-soaked blocks from the train station to the theater. I bent down and retrieved the lens and put it back inside the frame, where it remained, however precariously.
This moment preceding my experience of seeing the film—buying the ticket, walking into the theater where adult and sophisticated (and… gay?) moviegoers milled about—always seems so inescapably allegorical. Redolent of my excitement and deep nervousness, my vulnerability but also ability to keep going—not to lose sight of my goal or my desire.
While out to myself, I was thoroughly closeted to family, friends, the outside world. Hence my excitement and trepidation at the thought of being in a theater full of actual gays, those exotic creatures I counted myself among yet felt unable to join. The closet leaves one perpetually hungry. Steadfast in my secrecy, I surreptitiously imbibed contraband knowledge. I read gay-centric periodicals like Village Voice, which typically included not only articles about downtown gay life and the looming threat of AIDS but also flesh-baring images of contemporary Adonises (Adonis was the name, indeed, of a gay porn theater in Times Square); reread books like James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room and YA gay classics that got me through adolescence such as I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (1969) by John Donovan; Sticks and Stones (1972) by Lynn Hall; and, less conventionally since they did not contain explicit gay themes, Lois Duncan books like Killing Mr. Griffin (1978) and They Never Came Home (1968). And I had seen Merchant Ivory’s film A Room with a View (1985) in the theater and its nude male bathing scene still lurked in my mind and made me know I had to see Maurice.
When I made my way to the Paris Theater to see Maurice, my triumph was a solitary one.
When I made my way to the Paris Theater to see Maurice, my triumph was a solitary one. I was alone. No one in my world knew I was gay unless they’d inferred it independently, or I had had a sexual experience with them. So, my aloneness found a complement in Maurice’s. Although externally dissimilar, Maurice suffered in ways I responded to intensely; his struggles felt like my own. I remember a palpable, almost tactile thrill when Maurice and the friend he loves, Clive Durham (Hugh Grant), awkwardly but intently and tenderly embrace. I shared Maurice’s wound when Clive holds him at bay and rejects him. The bliss Maurice ultimately finds with the gamekeeper Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves) also felt personal.
I mention this feeling of ardent identification in hopes of making a larger point: one need not actually see oneself onscreen to see oneself in the work. As the child of immigrant parents, someone of mixed race with a working-class background on both sides, and as an American for that matter, I did not see in Maurice someone who looked or acted in the least as I did. Yet I felt for him intensely and wanted nothing more than his happiness. Alec’s seduction of Maurice promised a kind of relief for me too, or so I hoped.
Thus although the rise of identity-politics work has quite rightly sought authentic representation and diversity, it’s also important to note that the power of art can speak deeply to us without necessarily resembling us. My mother is from Haiti, and my father is from Argentina, and I have rarely seen myself on page or screen. Nevertheless, I have greatly benefitted from works of art, from narratives that have captured and expressed, it has sometimes felt, things from my own life. So it was with Maurice; I was a solitary wanderer finding refuge.
As a scholar I work in two fields—19th-century American literature, and film studies—and feel kinship with artists like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Alfred Hitchcock, and with film genres such as the woman’s film and film noir, the upstart visionaries of the New Hollywood and, later, the New Queer Cinema. The social psychiatrist Daryl J. Bem persuasively offered, in a 1996 paper, a theory of homosexual desire—really, of all sexual desire—as having this foundation: “the exotic becomes erotic.” This parallels my aesthetic appetites: I want to inhabit lives unlike my own.
Maurice, like much of Merchant Ivory’s work, has not been treated fairly or generously by critics.
Seeing Maurice now, I still feel deep kinship with it. It seems to me that the film can scarcely be bettered. James Ivory’s direction, the Richard Robbins score, the cinematography by Pierre Lhomme, the screenplay adaptation, and the acting are all glorious. Exquisitely adapted from Forster’s equally undersung and eloquent novel, Ivory’s film is a vision distinct from Forster’s, though there are obvious overlaps.
Almost 35 years later, I remain enthralled by Maurice, but am less dependent on it to speak for me. Indeed, I feel, to a certain extent, that I must speak for it. Maurice, like much of Merchant Ivory’s work, has not been treated fairly or generously by critics, including queer theorists who maintain that such works desexualize and distort homosexuality.
Ultimately, Maurice is as much about loneliness and isolation as it is about the closet and queer desire. As such, it has overlaps with works such as Hitchcock’s great Marnie (1964) and one of the least discussed great queer films, The Delta (1997), directed by Ira Sachs. Imagine if Alec Scudder were non-white and could not achieve romantic bliss with Maurice. The Delta gives us this story with harrowing results, emphasizing the themes of immigrant isolation and loss and the supremacy of white males in the gay imaginary. Ivory’s film, meanwhile, offers critiques of the stifling effects of class bias and the closet, as well as the representation of loneliness and isolation.
In the end, what makes Maurice a resonant text for the LGBTQ+ audience is not just its happy ending (albeit less happy than it may appear) but also the fact that its title character is able to jettison the class system and ties that have kept him a sexual and emotional prisoner. That he can feel for others and feel love for Alec gives us hope, in this time when it is most needed, that not only the systems that constrict us but also the people ensnared by these systems and seemingly doomed to perpetuate them are in fact capable of transformation.
Excerpted from Maurice. Copyright © 2023 by David Greven. Used with permission of the publisher, McGill-Queen’s University Press. All rights reserved.