Any story about the Marquis De Sade is bound to be strong stuff. Quills is based on Wright's play and directed in a bawdy theatrical style by Kaufman. This helps make Sade's antics more watchable--and surprisingly funny, in a very dark sort of way. But it also keeps us from ever really taking it seriously.Set in the early 1800s, Sade (Rush) is being held in a mental asylum, using a maid (Winslet) to smuggle his raunchy, radical manuscripts to his publisher. Napoleon isn't pleased, and assigns the vile Doctor Royer-Collard (Caine) to "cure" him with his torture therapy. And this sets up a collision of wills with the asylum's director (Phoenix), a priest with much more humane methods.
There's a lot more to it than that, with a complex web of yearnings and internal relationships that bind everyone to each other in quite wickedways. Kaufman keeps things colourful and very lively, and Rush has a ball with the performance--camping it up without ever going over the top, every line is double entendre, but there's real grit underneath.
Phoenix and Winslet have much more internalised roles, and both perform them well, while Caine coasts along in steely villain mode. The film would be fairly pointless without some solid themes underlying the chaos and manic behaviour--fear of opposing views, the danger of letting lust run wild, the importance and consequences of freedom of expression.Quills is complicated and thought-provoking without ever giving an easy answer. And for that the film is worth watching. But these characters' outrageous, in-your-face vulgarity is a lot to sit through to get there. On the other hand, if Kaufman had played it straight, it would be virtually unbearable.--Rich Cline