"Priest of Love: is an unprecedented delight: a move biography of a great winter that blends devotion and historical accuracy with tart, and ultimately stirring, character delineation. I doubt that anyone has ever filmed a more intelligent or satisfving literary bio.

Opening today at the K-B Macarthur and Outer Circle, Priest of Love" Honors the echievement of the D.H. Lawrence without resorting to the solemnities and sentimentalities that filmmakers habitually prefer when they pay respect to a literary figure. After an awkward, stilted beginning this modestly budgeted astute British production hits a witty stride.

The turnaround occurs at some point during a sojourn to New Mexico by Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, splendidly portrayed by Ian McKellen and Janet Suzman. It is the early '20s and they find themselves under the patronage of Mabel Dodge Luhan, impersonated with endearing noblesse by Ava Gardner. Maybe it's the moment when Frieda, having offered to pay for their keep with a Lawrence manuscript, is asked (by Mabel), "In his own handwriting?" The droll reply; "Most of Lorenzo's original manuscripts are in his own handwriting." Or maybe it's the moment when Lawrence, contemplating an Indian dance at one of Mabel's bashes, observes, "Gee whiz, the great cycle of nature! I'd recognize it anywhere."

These moments begin to accumulate and suggest that director Christopher Miles and screenwriter Alan Plater have a savvy appreciation of their subject matter. Although Plater's continuity remains rather circuitous -- a chronicle of the last nomadic decade or so of Lawrence's life that incorporates fleeting and sometimes disorienting flashbacks to earlier decades as well -- the characters impose themselves in distinctively funny, forceful ways. Once you get your bearings within the eccentric, bohemian literary circle dominated by Lawrence and his wife, the movie becomes peculiarly engaging.

Although "Priest of Love" has taken a far more entertaining approach than anticipated, this approach begins to look dramatically shapeless -- a diverting but miscellaneous selection of episodes from the life of a controversial, visionary writer. With disarming simplicity, Plater uses the death of Lawrence to resolve the apparent miscellany. Weakened by a lifetime of tuberculosis, Lawrence was only 45 when he died in 1930, but the movie persuades you that a literary life was fulfilled in this instance. Even if death arrived early, it did not deny Lawrence a productive, influential career.

This feeling of seeing a life's work completed sends you out on an exalted note, enhanced by a glorious comic epilogue involving the disposition of the urn bearing Lawrence's ashes to Taos years later -- a kicker so sublime that you're sure only real life could have invented it.

Ordinarily, one would expect a movie like "Priest of Love" to attract only a specialized public -- moviegoers who share the interest in Lawrence demonstrated by Miles and Plater, reunited on this exceptional labor of love 12 years after making a creditable first impression with a movie version of the Lawrence novella "The Virgin and the Gypsy." As it happens, "Priest of Love" evolves into such a joyous biographical ramble and concludes on such a giddy inspirational high that it could win over a broader segment of the public.

A familiarity with Lawrence -- the author of "Sons and Lovers," "Women in Love" and "Lady Chatterley's Lover" -- is bound to enhance the potential satisfaction, but it isn't absolutely necessary. Both the writing and acting are eloquent enough to identify Lawrence within the context of the movie itself.

The literary theme is augmented by an element that may prove even more appealing to moviegoers at large. "Priest of Love" also depicts the Lawrence marriage as an eccentrically heroic achievement. It began in scandal in 1912 when Frieda, a member of the von Richtofen family, abandoned her husband, an English academician, and their two young daughters to elope with Lawrence. Astutely distilling the ongoing emotional conflict and dependency created by this outlaw romance, the filmmakers also pay tribute to a literary marriage that unites genuine, albeit combative and disreputable, soulmates.

It's a rancorours and sometimes alarming relationship. Lawrence is revealed at his meanest in moments of domestic violence when he smacks Frieda around, evidently incensed by what he takes to be intolerable wifely sarcasm. However, the outbursts erupt and subside with stunning, lifelike suddenness. Lawrence and Frieda are capable of mutual betrayals and beastliness, but the periodic emotional violence confirms an intimacy and devotion that are expressed humorously and tenderly and that suggest an inseparable bond. Indeed, they're identified as artistic collaborators during a climactic episodic dealing with the composition and publication of "Lady Chatterley's Lover."

The movie sustains such a wonderful sense of proportion that you accept the contradictions in their volatile but durable union. The movie invokes the title of one of Lawrence's volumes of poetry, "Look, We've Come Through," to memorialize this turbulent marriage. And you're touched by the impression that, when all is said and done, they have come thrugh and sustained each other in their impulsive, messy way.

It might be fun if McKellen and Suzman came out of nowhere to waltz of with the year's film acting awards. They're certainly fun to watch, in vividly contrasted temperamental styles, McKellen wittily reserved and watchful, the image of a powerful and intimidating mind concealed within a frail, failing body, and Suzman wittily agitated and demonstrative, an equally forceful image of anxious, protective feminine passion. The supporting cast is also graced by two exquisite dead-pan performances -- Penelope Keith (the lead in the British TV series "To the Manor Born") as the lovably oblivious dorthy Brett, an aristocratic disciple of the Lawrences; and John Gielgud as Herbert G. Muskett, a censor obsessed with Lawrence's real or imagined outrages.

The movie itself achieves a humorous balance and serenity that transcend caricature and partisanship. When you see the authorities burning copies of "The Rainbow" during the credit sequence, you think uh-oh, they're are going to take an awful retrospective beating in this one. Happily, "Priest of Love" is the sort of literary bio that also relishes the documented sight of its protagonist igniting his own manuscript -- the first draft of "Women in Love" -- and drily commenting, "The only trouble with burning your books is that you have to write them again."