D.H. Lawrence is back, once again spreading shock, outrage and the thrill that goes with them. This time, it is as the hero of a splendid biographical film, "Priest of Love." It's been rather a dry spell along those lines for Lawrence, ever since Lady Chatterley's Lover got itself unbanned. Somewhere along the way to the universal celebration of sex and the free use of explicit language, that stodgy old institution Society managed to pass Lawrence by. Once those battles were over, he began to seem quaintly historical for having issued the battle-cry, and naive for having presumed that victory would improve the world, even the personal worlds of private happiness.

The outrages in "Priest of Love" are not generally sexual, although the scene in which he disrobes in front of his longtime groupie, the Hon. Dorothy E. Brett, announces "I do not believe in a relationship unless there is a physical relationship as well," does nothing, and then stalks out of the room declaring "It's no good," is pretty shocking by today's standards. (And the film's wildest scenes are all toned down from reality: According to Brett's memoirs, he repeated this a second night, directing the blame on her with the withering explanation, "Your boobs are all wrong.")

The new outrages are in Lawrence's erratic, vicious and eccentric behavior. It was tolerated by numerous people, including many literary figures in their own right, partly because they considered him a genius, but also because the source of it was an incredible vitality that, whether violent or witty, does, after all, represent the sort of life-force that he identified as sex.

The film is therefore constantly surprising, titillating, moving and funny, and chock-full of wonderful literary gossip. But it also has something important to show about energy -- creative and destructive -- that is akin to that which, more than the glorification of the sex act, made Lawrence's work so important to generations of readers.

The screenplay, written by Alan Plater from Harry T. Moore's book, is meticulous about the spirit and letter of Lawrence's life, as culled from his writings and everybody else's. (Hardly anyone he ever met failed to get a book out of the experience.) Where events are compressed, as in the combining of various trips, it is with fidelity to the artistic truth -- and, one might note, done with more sensitivity than Lawrence's friends all claimed he used in chewing up the facts of their lives in the name of artistic truth.

Christopher Miles, the director and co- producer with Andrew Donally, claimed to have chosen his cast for their resemblance to the characters, as well as for their talent. Indeed, Penelope Keith looks like the photographs of the amiable and slightly out-of-it Brett to the point of hilarity. But the acting talent displayed in this film is enough to make it a sensation, even if there were no other interest.

Ian McKellen, whose peerless performance as Salieri in "Amadeus" stunned Washington last year and then New York, brings to Lawrence a difficult combination of prissiness and liberation, stature and childishness, mesmerizing the audience and thus answering the question of why people tolerated Lawrence even as one asks it. There are moments, such as the way he answers "yes" when Frieda's daughters ask if he had to destroy their home, or a glance when Frieda has been afraid of finding him stricken and finds him working instead, that are whole acting lessons. When Lawrence ages, McKellen doesn't just change his facial hair and posture -- he settles into his body as if he had lived there that much longer.

Janet Suzman, long with the Royal Shakespeare Company, plays Frieda Lawrence, as she has done before on stage in London. The blowzy earthiness with which she makes herself Lawrence's match in all ways, her espousal of sex-above-all calling the bluff on his, is such that a relative of hers commented after a screening that she was "more Frieda than Frieda." When the consumptive Lawrence expresses the fear that he is about to die, Frieda shouts "You'll die when I tell you and not before," and it is not only Lawrence who has to believe her.

Ava Gardner is a glorious Mabel Dodge, the aggressive patron of the arts and of sex who brought the Lawrences to Taos, and Mike Gwilym is a nervously out-classed John Middleton Murry. (The characters of Katherine Mansfield and Aldous Huxley are just barely sketched in.)

The personification of British censorship is played with proper pomposity by John Gielgud, but is inevitably overshadowed as a villain by the damage Lawrence is doing to himself. Smaller scenes, as when Lawrence is the target of minor harassment by British, German or American officials, make the point as well of the stiff structure against which Lawrence exercised his energy.

An occasional redundancy exists, as when we see Lawrence's cat looking at Lawrence's goldfish, and then have it spelled out that the cat, to Lawrence's dismay but actually in keeping with his commitment to the ruthless sovereignty of the life force, must eat the goldfish. But more often, important concepts are done in a quick gesture -- the fact that Frieda carries coroneted handkerchiefs speaking for the extreme snobbery with which Lawrence viewed her aristocratic background, for all his boasting about his own humble origins.

The incredible restraint in showing complexity -- as in the refusal to require an explanation for Frieda's simultaneous mad devotion to Lawrence and desire to sleep with others -- produces a witty sophistication that makes just about every other modern film look simplistic if not, in our laboriously analyzed contemporary hedonism, as stuffy as Lawrence had always claimed society to be.

PRIEST OF LOVE -- At the K-B MacArthur and Outer Circle.