Subtle, sensitive and every bit as swoony as a Barbara Cartland bodice-ripper, James Ivory's superb screen translation of E.M. Forster's "Maurice" is not some condescending sociopolitical commentary on homosexuality, not some nasty pickup movie like "Prick Up Your Ears." It's woozy, unadulterated romance, an intoxicating tuxedo-ripper set against the elegant priggishness of England's post-Edwardian gentry.

Maurice (Anglicized as Morris) is a hero who's as besotted and bumbling as Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights." The story is wildly melodramatic and full of pining -- not vintage Forster but nevertheless faithfully adapted by Ivory, who not only directed but cowrote the screenplay with Kit Hesketh-Harvey. Like Forster, they focused on Maurice's growing isolation, but also enlarged upon the character of Clive, Maurice's Cambridge classmate and platonic love.

Forster, a homosexual himself, wrote the novel in 1914, but it wasn't published until 1971. It is set in pre-World War I Britain, and Forster's observation of prim and preposterous behavior has been polished to perfection by Ivory and his producer-partner Ismail Merchant of "A Room With a View." If anything, the wellborn of "Maurice" are even more repressed than in "Room," and Ivory and Merchant's social commentary is even more artful.

The filmmakers, noted for their lavish sets and period detail, place the lovers against backgrounds at once broody and pastoral. The young men meet beneath the phallic spires of Cambridge, roughhousing in their private rooms, studying together until they fall in love. Maurice Hall, a model of the rigid conventions of the era, is appalled when Clive Durham, an austere intellectual, confesses his love for him. Maurice, not a brilliant man by any measure, slowly realizes that he loves Clive, too. Like some big happy sheep dog, he embraces his friend, and a passionate but chaste affair begins.

Through the course of the film, Clive becomes increasingly colder, finally sublimating his sexuality to save his political career, his country estate and his good name. Nevertheless Maurice returns to the fashionably faded Pendersleigh for Clive's marriage to Anne, which turns into one of those polite relationships in which one sleeps in one's pajamas. Given the gentlemanly aversion to sex, it hardly mattered whether you were straight or gay.

Luckily the lower classes and the swarthy colonials have been around to arouse these starched shirts from their sexlessness. In Forster's "A Passage to India," it was the Indians; in "A Room With a View," the Italians; here it is the help. Maurice, like dear Lady Chatterley, takes up with gamekeeper Alec Scudder, an earthy man's man who gives Maurice the physical love he has longed for. The British obsession with class and sex is all rolled up into one beautifully constructed, ruggedly sensual story.

The love scenes are mostly rumpled sheets and fades to the ceiling. The filmmakers are never coy and always compassionate toward Maurice, but they're unmerciful when they turn to the gentry. Clive's kin and friends are exposed as fatuous ninnies, unable in one telling sequence to think for themselves when a ceiling leak dampens the pianoforte. One of the guests suggests they catch the drips in a saucer. Finally, Clive's mother rings for a servant.

Maurice is no liberal, mind you. He's a snotty stockbroker who's rude to the help and takes his wealth and position as his due. It's the first leading role for James Wilby, a freckled strawberry blond who had a walk-on in "A Room With a View." Here, he offers an accomplished performance, torn up and confused beneath his dinner jackets and crisp white shirts.

The young men of the cast look like models for a GQ fashion spread, with Hugh Grant, as Clive, the most recklessly attractive of them all. Grant, like his costar Wilby primarily a stage actor, makes a virtually flawless metamorphosis from an exuberant college boy to frigid, rigid neo-Victorian prig. Others from the cast of "A Room With a View" include Rupert Graves as Scudder and Denholm Elliott as a gruff family doctor who advises Maurice to forget his "hallucination from the devil."

Ben Kingsley, as an American hypnotist, is a charlatan, but the only straight character to show the hero any understanding. "England's always been disinclined to accept human nature," he says, urging Maurice to move to Italy or France, where homosexuality is not illegal. That might have been a fairly feasible solution, but Forster and the filmmakers opt for a Hollywood ending. "Maurice," paced as leisurely as turning pages, is sprawling and spectacular, with a score that's madly rococo. It's part of the British cinema's big coming-out party that began with "Another Country" and continued through "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Prick Up Your Ears." But in its willingness to treat a gay romance in a fanciful manner, it is much more of a breakthrough.

Maurice, at the Circle MacArthur, is rated R for profanity and nudity.