Entertaining if heavy-handed Oscar bait about the last days of the Marquis de Sade, as his pornographic writings get smuggled out of his cell at the Charenton Asylum in early 19th century France and become an embarrassment for the poor abbot running the asylum.
For some reason I have never managed to see a Philip Kaufman film, despite the notoriety of his work (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry & June, The Right Stuff, etc.). Now that I have seen the man in action, I feel he is a capable director but has nothing special to offer.
This film actually feels like an amalgam of Milos Forman's output, in that it combines the madhouse setting of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the Baroque lunatic-genius of Amadeus, and the maligned pornographer of The People vs. Larry Flynt. One wonders if Forman himself would have been able to make this story feel more relevant, as those three previous films say far more about art, jealousy, insanity, and free will than Quills can cough up.
It's still a handsome production, and the actors all put in good performances. As the chuckling Marquis, Geoffrey Rush is a devilish though beleaguered libertine; Joaquin Phoenix once more dons a British accent as a troubled religious man whose friendship with the Marquis is put to the test; Kate Winslet is fine, though her role isn't well-developed (and, yes, she does get naked – it must be in her contract); finally, Michael Caine rounds out the feted quartet as the cold-blooded doctor called in to set Charenton "right" again, no matter the cost.
The film is based on Doug Wright's off-Broadway play. Although Kaufman does "open things up" for the big screen, his direction is so by-the-numbers that it fails to elevate Wright's stage-bound storyline. What we're left with is your standard "Renegade Artist vs. Hypocritical Establishment" drama. Sex good, censorship bad, blah blah blah. You've seen it all before.
Quills does provide some fun, and it's manipulative in the best sense (the Marquis comes across as a really great guy), but it mistakenly believes it is has something new to say. This might be forgivable if the film were erotic or even vaguely offensive, which would be a fitting tribute to the Marquis. But outside of one brief three-way sex scene, some religious heresy, and a few unhappy glimpses of Geoffrey Rush's bottom, it's only the Hollywood version of naughtiness. I recommend instead the wild '60s film Marat/Sade (also based on a play) or the truly bizarre French puppet(!) film Marquis if you want a more potent taste of the life and mind of de Sade.