Director: Philip Kaufman. Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Michael Caine, Joaquin Phoenix, Amelia Warner, Stephen Moyer, Jane Menelaus, Billie Whitelaw, Elizabeth Berrington, Stephen Marcus, George Yiasoumi. Screenplay: Doug Wright (based on his play).

Sometimes a film with only one idea can be more agonizing to sit through than a film with no ideas. Such is the case with Quills, Philip Kaufman's suffocating adaptation of an off-Broadway play by Doug Wright. Despite its marquee cast and some gestures toward deepening its concerns in the second hour, Quills pitches its anti-censorship theme so broadly and from so early on in the picture that it wears the audience down instead of rousing us with conviction. Geoffrey Rush stars as the Marquis de Sade, an appropriate (if perhaps too obvious) touchstone figure for the film's hand-wringing advocacy of the freedom of ideas, no matter how ugly or offensive. By the beginning of the film, De Sade is already living in the Charenton asylum, presided over by the milquetoast Abbé de Coulmier (himbo of the moment Joaquin Phoenix). Sade's presence in the asylum—housed as he is in a gargantuan, fully furnished cell, with all the paper, writing quills, and comforting gewgaws he could desire—has conferred upon Charenton a somewhat unwelcome notoriety, though the plays he writes for his fellow inmates to perform at least attract paying customers. Quills starts to suggest through this device that sometimes the advocates or at least the protectors of free expression, such as the Abbé de Coulmier, may be couching private interests in liberally-postured language; not a new idea, but at least a nuance on the film's often monolithic Art Is Good declamations.

Even the Abbé, however, cannot tolerate nor even decipher the fact that, mysteriously, de Sade's filthiest ruminations are leaking out of the asylum and being widely published in Paris, where they are bought by fervid customers at almost the instant they leave the printing press. We know early on that de Sade is maintaining his literary life via Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a virginal but excitable laundress who sneaks his texts out with the wash. The French king is so outraged by the lewdness of Sade's imaginings that he orders Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a leading deviser and exerciser of physical torture, to visit Charenton as a royal liaison, only to ensure that Sade's pestilent ideas never again leave the asylum walls. Indeed, Royer-Collard, who, instantly upon taking his new post, marries a convent student named Simone (Amelia Warner) a full 45 years his junior, sets himself to destroying de Sade's right, even his phyiscal capability, to write out his fantasies within the privacy of his own cell.

It does not take much effort to see where all this is headed; like Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, released in the same season, Kaufman's picture tells an old story that can only end one way. Therefore, both filmmakers are under obligation to find new techniques and locate original points of emphasis in detailing their characters' downfalls. If Aronofsky overembraces the role of technical impresario, Kaufman errs even more dispiritingly on the side of "moody" dramatics and outsize character development. The period atmosphere, including the sepia tones of Rogier Stoffers' cinematography inside the asylum and Martin Childs' rendering of the grotty cells and corridors, are adequate to their task but seem ornamental to a story that is grounded in a conflict of human wills. Unfortunately, these conflicts are alternately clouded and exaggerated by the casting, the acting, and the screenwriting, all of which are so lopsided that alleged ideological rivalries are hopelessly stacked in one direction or the other.

Rush confirms that he is perhaps today's least generous actor, one who plays to the balcony with even the slightest provocation and without regard for narrative balance; only in Children of the Revolution, as Judy Davis' bewildered husband, have I ever seen him cede a single scene to a co-star. Given the chance to play one of history's most notorious attention-seekers, Rush is wholly unbearable, selling the one-liners Wright's script insists on providing him—this is historical fiction as quip-happy sitcom debate, a psychopath's The Lion in Winter—with even more voracious gusto than de Sade peddled his own fiction. The stand-offs between Rush and Caine, also not an actor inclined to be outdone, seem less like plot points than thespian fights to the death, as though Kaufman were hosting a Fox-TV special called When Oscar-Winners Attack.

Winslet and Phoenix, whose personae are respectively too worldly and too demented to suit their roles, wisely try to get out of their elders' way, but then Stoffiers insists on keeping them in the frame anyway. As theatrical adaptations go, this one rarely succeeds in fully abandoning the theater, where the electric presence of real bodies and a live audience probably made this material more gripping. Forever in long shot, the actors are stranded without enough to do, especially when they aren't talking. In these conditions, the youngsters tend to freeze, while Rush elaborates a whole laundry list of fussily effete postures.

Because the performances and the rhetoric are already ratcheted up so high within the opening half-hour, the only thing left for Quills to escalate is our revulsion at Sade's notions as well as the doom they bring to both their receptors and their critics. Though Quills deserves points towards its conclusion for tempering its thesis with some contextual qualifiers—it is clear, for example, that Sade's writing does aggravate his neighbors in Charenton more than they can safely withstand, and that his own "free expression" comes at inevitable cost to others—the sheer scale of physical desecration and psychic breakdowns on view in the final act will try the patience (and the stomach) of even the more forgiving viewer. Nearly every character has a "mad" scene, and we're back to the feeling of having joined an acting sweepstakes instead of a narrative, never more so than an eleventh-hour "surprise" ending that seems glib and desperate.

Like Rod Lurie's The Contender, Quills would have been an infinitely better film if the artists had committed themselves to rigorous debate instead of pat dichotomies and narrative cheating. We know that a writer of ideas, no matter how salacious, deserves higher regard than a torture specialist who rapes his teenaged daughter. Rather than pursue its most interesting possible direction—when, if ever, is free expression too free, too costly, and what are its after-effects?—Quills cowers behind a villain that overwhelms all controversy and makes de Sade seem cuddlier and safer, even he's writing on stone walls with his own excrement, than he probably was. Peter Brook's Marat/Sade, adapted in 1967 from Peter Weiss' play, remains both on stage and on screen a more compelling and brave interrogation of how art can both elevate and enervate a community. Quills, for its part, only enervates, and not in the ways it should have. C

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actor: Geoffrey Rush
Best Art Direction: Martin Childs; Jill Quertier
Best Costume Design: Jacqueline West

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Actor (Drama): Geoffrey Rush
Best Screenplay: Doug Wright

Other Awards:
Writers Guild of America: Paul Selvin Honorary Award (Wright)
National Board of Review: Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor (Phoenix; also cited for Gladiator and The Yards); Freedom of Expression Award
Satellite Awards: Best Actor, Drama (Rush); Best Adapted Screenplay

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