Dir: Philip Kaufman, 2000
The Marquis De Sade was, and is, a fascinating figure.
A sexual libertarian, De Sade was a proponent for the freedom of sex in all its forms. His written works are so explicit and obscene, that they are still censored in many countries around the world.
Books such as Justine and The 120 Days Of Sodom, are filled with some of the most degrading pornography, including child molestation and paedophilia.
However, he was not a free man. A good portion of his life was spent in mental institutions, where he continued to write. But, as his books were banned, they had to be smuggled out.
It’s this final chapter of De Sade’s life that Quills is based around. Of course, how much is true, is a different story.
Doug Wright adapts the film from his own stage play, and does a remarkable job. Often, plays don’t translate well to the screen and are more suited on the stage, where the atmosphere is strong and vibrant.
However, director Kaufman is adept to bring the life and vivacity of the theatre and manipulate it, allowing things to work so brilliantly for the cinema.
The issue with period pieces, is that we can’t, fairly, judge an actor’s performance. All we have is historical documents and the opinions of those who wrote them. It’s impossible to compare the actors take on a person, when we don’t know what the original was likr
As an actor in a role, Geoffrey Rush is pretty good. Whether it’s realistic or not, we’ll never know. He doesn’t look like depictions of the Marquis but even they might not be accurate.
Kate Winslet is the laundry maid, tasked with smuggling the forbidden prose out. Sexy and beautiful, Winslet is ideal for the role but occasionally treads into ham territory with some slight over acting.
The real downfall is Joaquin Phoenix as the asylum priest. There’s nothing wrong with the character, it’s Phoenix’s performance that lets the side down. Wooden and unbelievable, the hair-lipped son of hippy parents, is totally wrong for the film.
But, the real jewel in the crown, is Michael Caine as Dr. Royer-Collard. A sadistic and evil doctor, Caine plays him brilliantly. Sneering and smirking at the terrible torture practices he inflicts on the inmates, Caine’s years in the acting profession, allow him the freedom to take the character wherever he wants. Out acting the rest of the cast, the erstwhile Sir Maurice Micklewhite perfectly hits every trait that is needed.
Despite concern about the perverted ramblings, director Kaufman and writer Wright, refrain from being explicit, which works superbly. It would have been far too easy to use the Marquis’s graphic novels as an excuse for salacious and gratuitous sex.
The big question is the veracity of the story. Some parts are certainly true. De Sade did spend Many of his years incarcerated in mental asylums. His work was banned and declared morally corrupt. Dr. Royer-Collard isn’t a figment of the writer’s imagination and exist.
To be fair, the film doesn’t purport to be a biography, but one still has to wonder when dealing with actualities.
Ultimately, Quills is about censorship and the questions that arise. Does literature (or film) really have the power to corrupt? Is it a mental corruption or a moral one?
Whatever your answer, it can’t take away from how superb this film is.