Quills

          As the Clinton presidency enters its waning days, it is perhaps a fitting
  tribute that
Quills is opening in theaters. Certainly, one could argue that there
  are parallels between the story of the movie and recent historical events. A
  libertine has his sexual peccadilloes questioned and a tough, narrow-minded
  government official attacks his principles. While not exactly a direct parallel,
  there are certainly metaphorical similarities. So, perhaps it comes as no surprise
  to learn that the original play (produced Off-Broadway to great acclaim in 1996)
  was inspired in part by the debate over free speech, the funding issues involving
  the National Endowment for the Arts and so-called subversive art (i.e., the
  photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe). Author Doug Wright opted to use perhaps           
   the most notorious writer in history -- the Marquis de Sade -- as his protagonist,
  in part because de Sade's work remains fairly controversial. Is it art or is it
  pornography? Should the government censor such writings or should the general
  public be allowed access? These are questions that have been around since the
  dawn of time and periodically require visitation.

          Wright eschewed strict biography and instead created a fictionalized
  de Sade and in director Philip Kaufman he found an artistic soul mate. Kaufman
  is no stranger to controversy; the subject matter of his 1990 biographic film
  
Henry and June (about writer Henry Miller and his affairs) was deemed too
  adult for teenage audience and led to the creation of the NC-17 rating by the
  MPAA. So,
Quills seems almost tame in comparison.

          The film begins with a scene of revolutionary France as "Madame Guillotine"
  is employed without discretion. De Sade  (Geoffrey Rush) observes the
  decapitations discreetly behind lace curtains. Some twenty years later, though,
  he has been incarcerated in the asylum at Charenton and is under the
  ministrations of the Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). The Abbé is convinced
  that even a reprobate like de Sade can be saved and encourages the Marquis
  to write down his most vile thoughts in an effort to purge his mind. But the
  cleric is under the misguided belief; de Sade lives to write and create and he
  has employed a virginal laundress (Kate Winslet) in an elaborate smuggling
  operation that gets his manuscripts out to a publisher. When Napoleon is
  confronted with the reality of the Marquis' writings, he decrees that "alienist"
  Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) be dispatched to the asylum to silence de Sade.
  The resulting power struggle between these two like-minded men is what
  constitutes the conflict.

          One of the problems with
Quills is that Wright's conceit doesn't
  withstand the scrutiny of the camera. What worked on stage doesn't translate
  well to the screen. The plot is rather bland and hackneyed; the more
  Royer-Collard attempts to silence de Sade, the more determined de Sade is
  to be heard. The subplots involving the Abbé and the laundress and
  Royer-Collard and his child bride are also fairly predictable. There's a
  heightened theatricality to the writing and the "message" is delivered with
  too heavy a hand and too baldly.

          Kaufman manages to keep the film moving, but there are the occasional
  extraneous shots that feel like padding (e.g., a seemingly interminable carriage
  ride). For the most part, the actors do well. Winslet seems to be incapable
  of giving a bad performance and she makes the laundress a touching figure.
  Billie Whitelaw as her blind mother also contributes a nice supporting turn.
  Joaquin Phoenix offers a nuanced portrayal of a cleric who is both spiritual but
  also human. Caine once again reminds the audience that he can excel at villains,
  although the limitations of the role don't allow for much gradation. Royer-Collard
  is too black a character when more shades of gray are called for. Caine
  attempts to infuse them in his performance but there's only so much he can do.
  As the Marquis' wife, Jane Menelaus (in real life, Mrs. Geoffrey Rush) proves
  a revelation while Amelia Warner lends her beauty as the young Mrs.
  Royer-Collard.

          The most problematic performance comes from star Geoffrey Rush.
  Playing de Sade as something of an aging rock star -- Mick Jagger with more
  smarts -- he delivers a very stylized, highly theatrical take on the part. When
  contrasted with the supple and quiet work of Phoenix or the sauciness of Winslet,
  Rush's acting seems writ too large. He appears to be commenting more on the
  character rather than inhabiting it. While some may find his performance
  successful, I thought it worked against the material and proved detrimental to
  the overall effect.

          From a technical standpoint, the film is attractive, with Rogier Stoffers'
  painterly cinematography of particular note. Kaufman and his design team
  also successfully made the environment a character in the film; as the movie
  unfolds, the surroundings move from a pristine look to a ravaged one. Credit
  goes to production designer Martin Childs and art directors Steve Lawrence
  and Mark Raggett.

          There's no denying that
Quills raises provocative and fascinating issues,
  but somewhere along the lines, the concept overpowers the drama and instead
  of writing a masterpiece, these
Quills just pen folderol.

                                  Rating:                 C
                                  MPAA Rating:        R for strong sexual content including
                                                               dialogue, violence and language
                                  Running time:       124 mins.
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.