Set in Paris during the late 18th century, Quills is a fictionalized biography of the Marquis de Sade, a writer who was notorious for his erotic literature. His work was considered so blasphemous and taboo at the time that it earned him a one-way ticket to Charenton, an insane asylum where he and his writings were locked away in a cell. But his passion for getting his racy tales to the masses is greater than the walls that imprison him, and with the help of one of the asylum's chambermaids, he gets his work out into the world.
Geoffrey Rush is the Marquis de Sade, and Kate Winslet is the rebellious chambermaid in question. Together, they work against the system to smuggle the trashy literature to the citizens of Paris, who excitedly speak of the Marquis' work in hushed whispers and sell it in illegal, word-of-mouth networks like cocaine. Meanwhile, Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), the priest in charge of Charenton, is worried of the controversy his patient is stirring. He forbids the Maquis from writing, begging him to heed his advice before greater consequences befall him. But the Maquis doesn't take the friendly advice, and continues with his work. One night, he goes too far when he writes and directs a play that insults Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a prominent doctor who then makes it his mission to silence the Maquis de Sade once and for all.
Geoffrey Rush turns in an excellent performance as the demented Maquis de Sade, playing him with a twisted sort of charm that is egotistical, sinister, and endearing all at once. Aptly described as "a demented peacock," his manic actions hammer away the point of just how obsessed he was with his own work. When his quills, ink, and parchment are taken away, he cleverly substitutes a chicken bone, wine, and bedsheets to continue writing. And when all his possessions are confiscated, he resorts to using broken glass and his own blood to write a story on his clothes. Still later, when he is stripped naked and thrown into solitary confinement, he uses feces to write on the walls. (It's a sickening image, but you can't help but wonder, "Where the hell did he get all that sh*t?")
Rush's fellow stars are equally competent. Joaquin Phoenix works as the benevolent overseer of the asylum, Kate Winslet is reminiscent of her Titanic role as a brash young woman who snubs convention by supporting the Marquis, and Michael Caine is menacing as a doctor who uses barbaric methods to treat mental patients. While he still comes across as old and stodgy, Caine's character is a good embodiment of hypocrisy, condemning the carnal sins of the Marquis while all the while banging his child bride with grandfatherly clumsiness. Indeed, the sight of Michael Caine "ravishing" innocent cutie Amelia Warner is more disturbing than all the crap on the walls of the Marquis' prison.
Like Enemy at the Gates, Quills loses points for credibility because everyone sounds English. That might all be well and good if you were making a Guy Ritchie film, but considering that this is supposed to be 18th century France, I would except at least one of the characters to sound French! If they could pay such attention to historical detail in the costume designs, you would think they'd take a moment to tell the actors, "Hey. Throw out a few oui-ouis and French things up a bit." But given the choice between period accents and period costumes, I guess I should be grateful they went with the costumes--those breathing-restricting girdles always transform the women into buxom wenches, even if they aren't particularly buxom or wenchish to begin with. What an amazing precursor to the Wonderbra.
The greatest weakness of Quills is simply how dated the material is. Listening to the "oh so ribald" tales the Marquis writes, you can understand how it was controversial at the time--you just can't understand why you should share those same feelings of disgust and awe. The movie does little to convince you of just how revolutionary the writings were at that point in society, especially since it seems everyone who takes offense to it seems to be just as freaky in their private life behind closed doors. The story doesn't even strive to be a cautionary tale of the evils of censorship, or of the power of social change. As such, the Marquis de Sade as a symbolic figure doesn't resonate beyond his little corner of history.
Quills totally drops the ball at the end by deteriorating into a cliched melodrama. The "we're really all the same" message exemplified by the asylum's minister becoming more like the Marquis is a minor attention grabber at best. And the final scene of the Marquis is unintentionally comical. The minister is holding a small crucifix above a traumatized Marquis and saying a prayer when suddenly the Marquis swallows the religious icon and chokes on it. The music springs to life and Joaquin Phoenix belts out a laughable, "Nnnnnnoooooo!!!!" in a scene humorously reminiscent of an acting classic that has been parodied to no end: "Stellaaaaaa!!!!"
Rating: 6 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)