PARTNERS James Ivory and Ismail Merchant's uncharacteristically lively "Room with a View" featured passionate kissing and naked frolicking, and people liked it. But their follow-up, "Maurice," succeeds because their trademark flatness is appropriate for the subject.

The subject is repressed homosexuality in pre-World War I England -- as adapted from E.M. Forster's closet-autobiographical novel "Maurice." Two Oxford chaps have a platonic affair. But the fearful Clive Durham (Hugh Grant) subjugates his sexuality and marries. His friend Maurice (James Wilby), after weathering this rejection, stays true to his identity, and eventually is rewarded.

With their "Masterpiece Theater" approach (lifestyles of the Brit and shameless), Ivory and Merchant marry a sensational subject with the terminal respectability of leisured England. We sit in coaches, observe Oxford-educated gentility, join families at formal dinners and visit their country homes. And, because we're in on Maurice's secret, all these trappings have new meaning.

There are some deft ironies. At an Oxford University Greek class, for instance, a professor instructs a pupil to "omit the reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks." And Ben Kingsley has a glorious cameo as a mumbo-jumbo hypnotist who advises Maurice to strengthen his masculinity by seeking fresh air, getting exercise and carrying a gun.

Ivory's purposes are helped at first by the built-in safety of platonic love. By showing nonphysical love between Maurice and Clive, the film prepares us for Maurice's later physical relationship with under-gamekeeper Alec Scudder (Rupert Graves). By the time it happens, we are relieved for Maurice. The relatively mild sexual scenes seem inevitable and natural. Ivory is simply showing us loneliness.

Maurice's and Alec's main strain isn't sex but class. Forthright Alex is from the rural lower class, Maurice is a stockbroker. They must meet furtively -- in hotel rooms or the boathouse of Clive's country home. The potential for true love seems limited. But Maurice, at least, is liberated.

And so are the heterosexuals among us. While "Maurice" is only a modest artistic success, it gains ground in affirming love between men on the screen. You figure, if we can watch soldiers' guts splashing on the camera lens in "Platoon" or women being raped elsewhere, homosexuality should be a relative breeze. MAURICE (R) --

At the MacArthur.