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Merchant Ivory connects gilded surfaces with emotional depth

By Joanna Di Mattia
Restraint belies profundity in ‘Maurice’, ‘Howards End’ and more

Early in Merchant Ivory’s 1987 film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, our hero (played by James Wilby) and his “boyfriend” Clive (Hugh Grant), come to grips with their love for each other in very different ways. They’ve skived off classes at Cambridge to spend the afternoon in the surrounding bucolic grasses. They lie close together – Maurice silently adoring Clive, resting his head on his chest, and gently kissing his face. But when Maurice moves to kiss Clive’s mouth, Clive moves sharply away. “I think it would bring us down,” he explains. Clive believes that “body, mind, soul,” should be separate, that chaste love between men is deeper. But Maurice wants to fuse what’s in his mind with his body’s longings. This disconnect in their desires will be their downfall.

“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” These key lines from Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End are unvoiced in Merchant Ivory’s 1992 adaptation, but the central problem they speak to – how to “live in fragments no longer” – informs every frame. In Howards End three very different families – the bohemian Schlegels, the capitalist Wilcoxes, and the working-class Basts – collide. The problem isn’t just whether these people can unite across different social strata, but whether they can independently connect their intentions with their actions. Forster’s great inquiry – how is a person to lead an authentic life – shapes all his novels, and Maurice is no exception. Maurice refuses to live his life in pieces – to show one face in public and another in private. And it’s a dilemma Forster knew only too well, as a gay man living in England at a time when his sexuality could have had him arrested and jailed. He wrote Maurice in 1913 but it wasn’t published until 1971, a year after his death.

A failure to connect the “prose with the passion” is also evident in how Merchant Ivory films are often critically described. Director Alan Parker famously referred to the films produced by Ismail Merchant (1936–2005) and directed by his partner in life and work, James Ivory (1928–), as emerging from “the Laura Ashley school of filmmaking”. American critic Pauline Kael thought Ivory a great stylist, but incapable of capturing any sense of longing with his camera. Apart from referring to the name of the company formed in 1961, “Merchant Ivory” now also connotes a filmmaking style all of its own. Focused on the films that cemented their reputation in the mid 1980s and early 1990s – A Room with a View (1985), Howards End, and The Remains of the Day (1993) – the broad view of Merchant Ivory is that of purveyors of tasteful but tepid literary adaptations; Merchant Ivory has become synonymous with carefully manicured period pieces, with beautiful costumes and décor, which star the finest British actors and actresses, but are devoid of all passion and heat.

This view is, of course, a narrow one, engaging mostly with the superficial surfaces of the films, rather than what’s actually taking place between the characters on screen. It’s a view also based on the idea that Merchant Ivory is somehow quintessentially British. This belies the fact that the company comprised a Mumbai-born Muslim and an American Protestant, and that their most frequent screenwriting collaborator, the novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, was German, born of Polish Jewish parentage, educated in Britain, and married to an Indian. All three are therefore outsiders to the world they are accused of aestheticising and fetishising – perhaps allowing them to see the dangers of British repression and foibles, because they didn’t grow up among them.

Recent 4K restorations of Maurice and Howards End, released in 2017 for the films’ 30th and 25th anniversaries, have polished their surfaces. Screening in Australia for the first time at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne (April 20 – May 8), these restorations will undoubtedly refocus attention on each film’s sumptuous production values, which are exquisite and a major source of their immense pleasures. But the restorations also provide an opportunity to look beneath their gilded surfaces – to admire the soft furnishings, and also understand the characters for whom the emotional stakes are high and huge. Like their source material, Merchant Ivory’s Maurice and Howards End don’t simply decorate or venerate Britain’s past. Edwardian England emerges as nothing less than a troubling place of unspoken desires, hidden identities, and dangerously suppressed truths. The inner lives of characters in both films are frequently messy. Feelings trigger trouble. One kiss, one caress, one ill-conceived gesture can cause an earthquake.

Maurice’s entire tone shifts because of one caress, in a scene that unfurls from a close-up on Maurice’s hand as it tenderly touches Clive’s hair. The men are alone in Maurice’s college rooms, their love finding its first physical expression. By concentrating first on just a hand, Ivory creates great intimacy between Maurice and Clive, reminding us that these men are flesh and blood. We also understand the risk they are taking – their embrace abruptly thwarted when a group of students barges into the room.

In Maurice and Howards End there is tension between what is socially permissible in relation to class and sexual relations, and what people actually desire. When characters don’t accept these constraints, emotional chaos ensues. Personal fulfilment becomes each film’s driving force. Maurice, trying to figure out how to live as a gay man when it is illegal and unspeakable, repeatedly pushes against the decorous façade of his life – church, home, and work. When Clive eventually rejects a relationship in which they “share everything”, Maurice finds this in the arms of another man, outside his class – the under-gamekeeper at Clive’s estate, Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves). Maurice heats up as Scudder enters Maurice’s line of sight, and Maurice’s heartbeat is nearly palpable as he inches closer to finally having what he has always wanted – to live in accord with his nature.

If Ivory’s direction is restrained, his actors’ performances burn, playing characters overtaken by feelings they initially can’t express, and that, once expressed, can’t be contained. In Howards End, the younger of the two Schlegel sisters, Helen (Helena Bonham Carter), lacks the self-control that her older sister, Margaret (Emma Thompson), implores her they require if they are to “have happy lives.” Bonham Carter’s performance style embodies this freeness. Her Helen doesn’t sit still, her enormous hair comes undone, and her emotional eruptions intensify as she becomes more fervently entwined with Leonard Bast’s (Samuel West) fate and outraged at the social hypocrisies around her. There is a similar gush of emotional violence in Maurice when Clive rejects Maurice for the comforts of a country life and wife. Maurice is filled with despair. Wilby plays the scene with the exquisite heartbreak it warrants, directing his anguish towards Grant’s Clive, but also turning it inward. “What’s going to happen to me?” he grieves, deciding, “I’m done for.” And we believe him.

Such impassioned moments boom because they contrast with other sequences where emotions lurk silent and still beneath the surface. In Maurice, a translation class reveals Maurice’s desires before he’s even fully cognisant of them. As a student translates a text about the love between Zeus and Ganymede and “the unspeakable vice of the Greeks”, we watch Maurice absorbing it as a way to explain his feelings for Clive. In Howards End, Thompson’s Oscar-winning performance as Margaret spans the full scale of human behaviour. Where she starts off chatty and bright, Margaret becomes most vivid during moments of reflection and observation. The world is cracking open around her. But through the tilt of her head or a shift in her eyes, Thompson shows us that Margaret remains committed to connecting to that world and all the people in it.

The recent Ivory-scripted Call Me by Your Name (2017) – for which he won his first Oscar – too relies on such contrasting emotional currents for its profound impact, and suffered similar accusations of erotic apathy. Some commentators wanted to be visually bombarded with Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver’s (Armie Hammer) passions. Ivory himself lamented the absence of full-frontal male nudity and sexual frankness in Luca Guadagnino’s finished film. But Call Me by Your Name is nevertheless a fitting tribute to the Merchant Ivory brand, pushing what might be voiced under the surface, so that it emerges, like a silent confession, in every move and gesture of its two leading men. Rather than using directorial flourishes to indicate inner turmoil, the film’s fieriest passions, like those in both Maurice and Howards End, are visible in the nuances of two deeply yearning performances. Like Maurice, Clive, Helen, and Margaret, even when Elio and Oliver don’t tell us what they are feeling, we know how profoundly they are feeling it.

Joanna Di Mattia

Joanna Di Mattia is an award-winning film critic who has written for many publications and outlets, including Senses of Cinema, Screen Education, SBS Movies, Kill Your Darlings, The Age, The Big Issue and Fandor.

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