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:: Quills

When you think about a film featuring the Marquis de Sade, you know that the content will be explicit in a sexual nature and that it won’t be merely a light-hearted romp. With a hugely talented cast, “Quills” offers two hours of undeniable viewing. Shirking the biopic format for a fruitful mix of fact and fiction, the story focuses on the last months of the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush), who is smuggling his tawdry manuscripts out of the Charenton asylum. 

This was one of the many French medieval or penal institutions in which de Sade spent more than a third of his life. He is considered sick in his soul. He has a compassionate priest in Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). Abbe is the institute’s director and he encourages the occupiers of his wards to release their spirit through singing. For the Marquis, it’s through writing. The Marquis has a good supply of quill pens and paper in his cell, which is furnished comfortably with his own belongings. What Abbe doesn’t realise is that de Sade’s writings are leaked out of the institute, through an accomplice, the buxom laundress Madeleine (Kate Winslet). She steals the papers away with the rest of the Marquis’s dirty laundry and passes his words to a waiting publisher’s assistant. Madeleine’s relationship with the Marquis isn’t all business, though. He demands that she visit him often for an encounter. Madeleine has affections for Abbe, instead, and the Marquis toys with Abbe until Abbe’s celibacy is tested.

The Marquis’s titillating writings cause a stir that Emperor Napoleon soon hears about and he orders the execution of the Marquis. Napoleon is persuaded to allow a so-called visionary of corporal punishment, Dr Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to put a leash on the Marquis. This is at odds with Abbe’s methods of healing through kindness. The tug-of-war between doctor and priest winds up affecting all of the inmates and staff, resulting in a dark, disturbing, yet effective ending.

Director Philip Kaufman and screenwriter Doug Wright (who adapted “Quills” from his award-winning play), focus on telling a rollicking good story while also managing to fold in themes of social control, censorship, and freedom of speech. “Quills” is a very tough film and it pays off handsomely. Kaufman works this film through the multi-faceted story and characters. He never goes over-the-top, even when the story might.

But this is an actors’ film. Geoffrey Rush proves himself a fine actor and enlarged his range yet again. He is wonderfully carnal and hungry as the Marquis, making full use of his robust voice, and moving from ticklish prods to hot ecstasy. Kate Winslet continues to display her prowess, creating a character that is both dedicated and vulnerable. She finds more fulfilment in choosing challenging roles in independent films and has built a fine body of work. There is fine support from Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Caine too. Phoenix takes a painful character and makes it seem incredibly lifelike. This performance follows his deliciously evil role in “Gladiator”. The dark role for Caine makes it one of his best acting roles in a while.

Overall, “Quills” is a fascinating film. The Marquis de Sade will probably remain as an enigma to many people. Many of his works are rarely published due to the inflammatory nature. But the film makes a good fist of his latter years. It takes a good look at his writings and the repercussions, and there is enough drama inherent in the details of his existence to fashion a watchable history. Imaginative and well executed, “Quills” is highly recommended.