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Review byMatthew Turner19/01/2001

Four out of Five
Running time: 123 mins

Engaging, bawdy costume drama, packed with great lines and featuring an astonishing performance by Geoffrey Rush.

France, 1807, and the infamous Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) has been locked away in the insane asylum at Charenton, in order to ‘protect’ the people. The kind-hearted asylum head, Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoneix) allows de Sade to continue writing, and even staging amateur dramatic productions with other inmates, believing it to be cathartic.

However, he doesn’t realise that de Sade’s works are being smuggled out to his hungry publishers, courtesy of Kate Winslet’s lusty laundress, Madeleine. And when word of de Sade’s continuing underground success (people gather in the streets to hear his works read aloud) reaches Napolean, he despatches Doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to the asylum in order to ‘cure’ de Sade by any means necessary.

It soon transpires that the air at the asylum is rife with hypocrisy. Royer-Collard is as much a sadist as de Sade – his ‘cures’ are nothing more than elaborate tortures, and he keeps his beautiful young virgin bride (rising British starlet Amelia Warner) under lock and key. Similarly, the supposedly virtuous Abbe harbours the same lust for Madeleine as the Marquis does.

The film then becomes a battle of wits between de Sade and Royer-Collard with Abbe caught in the middle, and, as the Marquis is gradually stripped of his writing materials (the ‘Quills’ of the title), he finds ever more torturously ingenious ways to produce his works, writing first with wine and sheets, then blood and his own clothes, and finally his own excrement and the walls. Yes, it’s that kind of film!

Make no mistake, there are some terrific moments here, with the most memorable images emanating from the scenes described above. The acting is superb throughout, with Caine, Phoenix and Winslet all putting in sterling performances.

It is Rush’s film, though – he plays the Marquis as an irrepressible strutting peacock, relishing every delicious witticism and perfectly illustrating the Marquis’ compulsion to write. He is also unafraid to, literally, strip de Sade bare, so that, by the end, you both admire and pity him in equal measure - it is a fearless performance and one that, like that of Ellen Burstyn in Requiem For A Dream, should earn him an Oscar nomination if the Academy can overlook the subject matter.

Attention is also paid to the minor characters: everyone in the film is, in some way affected by the Marquis’ writings - despite the themes of torture they are seen as liberating, especially to women. We see the effect on the inmates, on Madeleine’s fellow launderers (inspired to an impromptu threesome by one of her readings), and on Madame Royer-Collard, who hides her copy of de Sade’s Justine inside another book, then leaves it behind for Royer-Collard to find when she runs off with her young lover.

Ample material, then, for the ‘does literature inspire copycat behaviour’ debate, and Kaufman has also hinted that he equated Royer-Collard with Kenneth Starr (simultaneously revulsed and fascinated by every sordid detail), all of which adds to the enjoyment of the film in a post-film pub-discussion sort of way. The film isn’t perfect, by any means – it goes way over the top before the end, and you may even come out feeling in need of a good wash. However, it deserves to be seen for Rush’s performance alone, and it will at least give you something to think about. Recommended.

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Content updated: 17/02/2020 15:07

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