Today’s films concern angsty gays at British Boarding Schools. In fiction such schools are cauldrons of rage and lust. Lord of the Flies and Plato’s Symposium. A place where a gay man can discover his true self or be beaten into conformity. E.M. Forster left King’s College, Cambridge in 1901 and became a celebrated author. Guy Burgess left Trinity College, Cambridge in 1935 and became a Russian spy. Sodomy would not be decriminalized in England till 1967 so their freedom was always at risk. The following films imagine their school days and their first loves. Read on for two spoiler filled recaps.
A Russian spy recalls the homophobia he suffered at his British boarding school. The experience led him to resent the country of his birth. Rupert Everett and Colin Firth headline a terrific cast. They make the dialogue sound wittier than it is. Julian Mitchell’s slow script, adapted from his stage play, ends right when things are getting interesting. You’ll have to research the real Guy Burgess to understand how he got from Cambridge to Moscow.
“Though I hadn’t been rebellious, I knew the oppressive way boarding school can work on people, and probably still does… [I] looked at how such places might turn people into traitors.” ~ Julian Mitchell, writer
Scene One: Moscow, 1983
WRITER: Why did a wealthy Englishman become a Russian spy?
RUPERT EVERETT (in age makeup): Because of what happened at school.
Scene Two: British Boys’ School, 1935
RUPERT EVERETT (a hedonist): I want to join the “God” prefects. They all get government jobs. And wear pretty vests.
COLIN FIRTH (a Marxist): They’re idiots, like everyone else in Britain. We should listen to Stalin
EVIL HEAD BOY: The next “God” prefect is going to be ME!
“GOD” PREFECTS: We don’t want queers, commies or prats. We’re bribing our friend to transfer here and take the spot.
COLIN FIRTH: See Rupert? The British class system is rotten to the core.
Scene Three: Romance
RUPERT EVERETT: I’m dating Cary Elwes!
CARY ELWES: I don’t say much but I’m very pretty.
EVIL HEAD BOY: I stole your gay love letter. Prefect rules say I get to spank you for indecency.
RUPERT EVERETT: If that cane touches my bum, I’ll name the names of every boy I’ve shagged.
“GOD” PREFECTS: Well this is awkward. Never mind then.
EVIL HEAD BOY: If I can’t spank you, I’ll get Cary Elwes expelled.
RUPERT EVERETT: Then spank away.
Scene Four: Revolution
COLIN FIRTH: Why couldn’t you have been discrete?
RUPERT EVERETT: I shouldn’t have to. But if I stay here, I’ll never be treated with respect.
COLIN FIRTH: Then join the Cambridge Five and become a Russian spy! Russia adores homosexuals!
RUPERT EVERETT: Truly? That would make for an interesting movie. Unfortunately, this is…
E.M. Forster’s 1914 novel concerns a homosexual man who is abandoned by a rich lover and rescued by a poor one. It would not be published till 1971, a year after his death. The Merchant Ivory film is gorgeous and melancholy. Maurice’s first romance is full of longing looks and painful self-restraint. His second is lusty and uninhibited. Laughs are few and far between. Danger is around every corner. And yet the story ends with hope. Something that the gay community needed plenty of.
“A happy ending was imperative” ~ E.M. Forster, author
Scene One: British Boys’ School, 1909
MAURICE (Middle Class): Let’s be friends.
HUGH GRANT (Wealthy): Let’s be more than friends.
(Maurice tries to kiss Hugh Grant)
HUGH GRANT: No. We must not touch, but I will love you forever and always.
GAY CLASS MATE: I’ve been arrested for “immorality.” I’m going to prison.
HUGH GRANT: Never mind. I’m marrying a woman.
Scene Two: Doctors’ Offices, 1913
(Maurice has left school and become a stockbroker.)
MAURICE: Doctor, I’m a homosexual.
FIRST DOCTOR: Nonsense.
SECOND DOCTOR (Ben Kingsley): I’ll hypnotize the gay out of you.
MAURICE: Did it work?
SECOND DOCTOR: If it didn’t, you’ll need to move to France or Italy. England doesn’t want you.
Scene Three: London, 1913
RUPERT GRAVES (A servant): Oi luvs you sir. Let’s run away together.
MAURICE: It will never work. We’re different classes. We only met halfway through the film. Soon we’ll have nothing to talk about.
RUPERT GRAVES: Roger Ebert said the same sir. And yet we’re based on a real-life couple who made it work.
MAURICE: All right then. (They run away together.)
HUGH GRANT: Ridiculous. They’ll never be happy. Not like me and my wife… Nope… No siree…
Roaming the Greenwood
[I]t’s about someone who is prepared to live a lie. And at the last second, they decide … they want to live really and truly and honestly. ~ James Ivory, director
Another Country is a brisk 90 minutes while Maurice takes an indulgent 140. I find Maurice the more rewarding of the two but both films merit a watch. Some trivia:
- The stage production of Another Country ran 19 months. Rupert Everett and Kenneth Branagh starred. The roles would be taken over by Colin Firth and Daniel Day-Lewis. The film is currently streaming here.
- Actor Michael Jenn appears in both films. He’s a sensitive prefect in Another Country and an obnoxious in-law in Maurice. He’s been steadily working since.
- Maurice was restored and re-released in 2017. Here’s an interview Hugh Grant and James Wilby gave at the British Film Institute’s screening.
- Robert Lopez’s 2018 play The Inheritance was a modern gay adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. At one point the characters argue with Forster’s ghost about his decision not to publish Maurice in his lifetime.
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