Some years after the French Revolution, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush), a notorious writer of scandalous prose, is held captive in the Charenton mental asylum. Yet his books and pamphlets still manage to reach the public thanks to the maid Madeleine (Kate Winslet), who smuggles out the manuscripts under cover of taking his sheets every morning to be cleaned. When word of the Marquis' works reaches Emperor Napoleon (Ron Cook) he demands that someone put a stop to it, so a new doctor is sent to Charenton, Doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a more conservative man than the current head of the asylum, Abbe du Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), and the stage is set for tragic conflict...
A rather unhistorical version of the last days of the Marquis de Sade, Quills was scripted by Doug Wright, adapting his own play for the screen. In its opening it resembles a Carry On de Sade-style bawdy romp, with Rush offering us his best Sid James by way of Basil Brush, as if to say he was a wicked man, but a cheeky scamp really. Yet the puritanism of the theme soon takes over, with the effects of the Marquis' perversities spelling doom for any who cross his path, as if this were more like a Hammer horror movie. The actors perform with gusto and its fun to see this cast spar with each other, but the final message is a muddle.
The Doctor is unimpressed with the Abbe's liberal ways, and means to crack down on his inmates - we know he's a bad sort when we see him using a ducking stool as a cure for madness, which is in actuality a punishment for the afflicted. If the Marquis represents freedom of speech, which includes freedom to publish as much pornography as he pleases, then the Doctor represents the anti-pornography brigade, with a large helping of the religious right in his character. And naturally, we see the sixty-something Doctor is a hypocrite when he takes a teenage bride and forces himself on her, keeping her imprisoned in a lavish palace - no one has an unblemished character in Quills.
When news of this reaches the de Sade, he is delighted, and changes the play he and the inmates are putting on under his direction to a thinly veiled parody of the doctor's marriage, making a true enemy in the process. But while the play is being performed, Madeleine is nearly raped by a brutish inmate, a heavy handed way of showing that too much liberty can have dangerous consequences. The set up is fairly mechanical, with the three men representing three differing views, the Marquis, the Abbe and the Doctor, bumping heads much as you'd expect, so that by the halfway mark you're wondering whether the film has anywhere left to go.
It has, of course: downwards. The Marquis is stripped of his privileges, but still gets out a new manuscript by writing in wine with a wishbone on his bedsheets, which Madeleine dutifully copies and sends off to the printers. When the Doctor finds out, the Marquis is left with absolutely nothing in his cell so he writes in blood on his clothes (must have been a short book), so has his clothes taken away. Eventually, his obsession with self-expression and determined decadence means that other inmates are corrupted, and Madeleine is whipped for her involvement, much to the Abbe's dismay, who secretly loves her for her supposed purity. After apparently taking the Marquis' side as he exposes the limitations of society with his subversion, the film implies that very subversion is the cause of melodramatic death and destruction so you're left wondering if we're supposed to admire him or loathe him. This confusion is the film's undoing and finally doesn't convince either way. Music by Stephen Warbeck.