MAYBE IT'S because so many films end Happily Ever After that "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne" seems surprisingly refreshing by comparison.

In "Passion," people wrestle with their problems and never win. Life's a struggle, and then you die. And then people keep your jewelry.

Actually, Judith Hearne (Maggie Smith) is keeping her late Aunt D'Arcy's jewels -- a photograph of the old lady (Wendy Hiller) and a small, haloed painting of Christ. The objects represent her past -- a sad sequence of events in which the orphan was adopted by Aunt D'Arcy, forced to attend church, then obligated to nurse her invalid aunt for too many years. Now a lonely spinster, with only piano teaching to support her, Judith wanders from Irish boarding house to boarding house, carrying relics and fleeting hope.

So, when a potential suitor enters her life, she's delirious. Even if he exists within the squat frame of James Madden (Bob Hoskins), a hustling Irish New Yorker who's out only for personal gain. The brother of Judith's landlady Mrs. Rice (Marie Kean), he's returned from financial failure in America to pick up the pieces. Judith thinks he's bigtime. Madden thinks Judith's loaded. They start dating.

Maggie Smith's measured performance fills Jack Clayton's film with a sweet tragedy. Her eyes glisten with exhilaration. They're drenched with heartbreak here, cloudy with drunkenness there. Her frailty and desperation are fetching. Hoskins provides perfect counterpoint, with a disarmingly adept New York accent and desperations of his own: A sexual obsession with the housegirl upstairs and a tenacity that hasn't gotten him anywhere.

Clayton's no whiz director. His flashbacks to Judith's past are amateurish, and he packs no visual punch. What you remember are not his images, but the performances, intermingled with screenwriter Peter Nelson's world of dire, almost comical loneliness (adapted from Brian Moore's novel). In Mrs. Rice's boarding house, sarcasm, gossip and connivance are in full supply. The boarders moan and groan at the breakfast table about this Judith Hearne who drinks herself loud and sentimental at night. Kean's Mrs. Rice is full of poisonous lines, and Ian McNeice has an engaging, tubby bawdiness as her cherubic nephew who likes to creak the bed springs upstairs with the servant girl.

When vulnerable Judith, after a nervous breakdown, faces Madden once again, she's back in trouble. She's attracted to him but knows he only wants to exploit her. What she does about it amounts to a very small victory, but it's as glorious as it gets for her.

THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE (R) --

At the Outer Circle.