Maurice and More Mark a Special Year for San Francisco Film Fest

This year the San Francisco International Film Festival turns 60, and the beloved gay film Maurice turns 30. They both, however, are looking better than ever. A screening of a restored Maurice and a tribute to its director, James Ivory, will be among the highlights of the 2017 edition of the oldest film festival in the U.S., and indeed in all the Americas. Read on for more about this very special year for the festival, which opens today and runs through April 19.  

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When Maurice premiered in 1987, LGBT audiences were surprised and delighted: a rare same-sex love story with (spoiler alert) a happy ending. Unfortunately, those stories remain rather rare even today — but fortunately, Maurice has aged quite well, and it’s now being introduced to a new generation.

The film from director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, longtime partners in life and work, has undergone a thorough digital restoration to assure top-notch picture and sound quality, and it’s playing selected film festivals, including San Francisco's, in advance of a theatrical rerelease in May. 

Ivory, who at age 88 is still active in film, 12 years after Merchant’s death, plans to be at the screening and tribute, taking place April 14. He’s happy about the restoration, although he reacts in a rather understated manner. “Everybody wants to see their films restored,” he says, noting that these days digital is usually the way to go. The restoration comes from Cohen Media Group, which has acquired 30 Merchant-Ivory films, and Ivory oversaw the restoration with cinematographer Pierre Lhomme.

Maurice came roughly in the middle of the 44-year Merchant-Ivory partnership — a collaboration that landed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest indie-film partnership in history. Ivory decided to do the film, he says, because he was so impressed with the source material — E.M. Forster’s posthumously published novel of the same name.

“His novels are full of very rich scenes, highly charged scenes, emotionally, and he also does wonderful characters,” says Ivory, who wrote the screenplay with Kit Hesketh-Harvey.

In Maurice, the primary characters are Maurice Hall (James Wilby) and Clive Durham (Hugh Grant), who fall in love as students at the University of Cambridge in early-20th-century England. They (again, spoiler alert) keep their relationship platonic, given the taboos on homosexuality at the time. Clive, who has political ambitions, is content to lock his closet door and marry a woman, especially after seeing the tragic fate of a friend who is caught in a same-sex encounter. Maurice struggles with his sexuality, even consulting a hypnotist in an attempt to be “cured.” But when he meets Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves), a handsome young gamekeeper on Clive’s estate, he sees the possibility of love beyond society’s boundaries regarding gender and class.

It’s all beautifully rendered, with Ivory’s thoughtful screenplay and direction, nuanced performances, gorgeous sets and costumes, and Richard Robbins’s lovely music. There are notable turns from actors in supporting roles, especially Simon Callow as a teacher who gives the young Maurice an incredibly awkward and priggish lesson in the mechanics of procreative sex (knowing that Callow is gay adds some interesting subtext), Ben Kingsley as the hypnotist, and Denholm Elliott as a doctor who assures Maurice he can’t be anything so filthy as a homosexual.

Although much has changed for LGBT people since Maurice’s initial release, Ivory doesn’t think audiences will view the film differently today. “The people who liked it 30 years ago are going to like it today,” he says, adding that he’s also happy to bring it to a new generation.

Given the British setting of so many (though by no means all) Merchant-Ivory films, it may surprise some to learn that Ivory is an American — he was born in Berkeley, Calif., and grew up in Oregon. Nor was he a particular Anglophile when he started making films set in England — it really, he says, all grew out of his love for Forster’s work. Forster’s novels were actually quite critical of the British class system and other aspects of the culture, Ivory notes.

Maurice also resonated with him, he says, because he had recently finished another Forster adaptation, A Room With a View, in which one of the main characters is a young woman engaged to a man she doesn’t love. She’s living a lie, while Maurice explores another “living a lie” situation. “Young people shouldn’t live lies” is the overarching theme of both, he says.

Ivory was able to live his life honestly and productively with Merchant, whom he met in New York City in the 1960s. “He was an extraordinary figure, full of energy and interesting and very smart and very handsome,” Ivory recalls. And “he was a genius as getting films made,” Ivory adds.

Ivory has had only one film released since Merchant’s death, 2009’s The City of Your Final Destination; Merchant was involved in its development but died before filming began. This fall, however, will bring another Ivory release: Call Me by Your Name, a love story involving two young men on the Italian Riviera in the 1980s. Ivory and the film's director, Luca Guadagnino, adapted André Aciman’s novel for the screen. Starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name was a hit at Sundance and will be released in November by Sony Classics.

Maurice, meanwhile, will be back in theaters beginning May 19 in New York City, with engagements planned in other major cities after that, plus, eventually, home video and on-demand releases.

During the San Francisco festival, Maurice will screen at 6 p.m. April 14 at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s part of a festival marked by a spirit of activism and inclusivity — more important than ever in today’s political climate, festival organizers note. “We have so many offerings that have to do with social justice and the environment,” says Rachel Rosen, director of programming. On the next pages, find out about some of them, and go here for the full schedule.


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