A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Some are born evil, others choose evil, and some have evil thrust upon them. We are most inclined to forgive the members of the first category. The Marquis de Sade, for example, was hard-wired from birth as one of the most villainous of God's creatures. Although it is impossible to approve of him, it is possible to concede that he did what we are all enjoined to do: Taking the gifts and opportunities at hand, he achieved everything he possibly could. That his achievement is reprehensible does not entirely obscure the fact that his spirit was indomitable and his tenacity courageous. You know you've made your mark when a word--"sadism"--is named after you.
Philip Kaufman's "Quills" supplies us with a Marquis toned down for popular consumption (you will not discover here that he thought an aristocrat like himself had the right to commit murder in search of pleasure). This Marquis stands not so much for sexual license as for freedom of artistic expression, and after he is locked up in an asylum and forbidden to write, he perseveres anyway, using his clothing, his skin and the walls of his cell as surfaces, and his own blood and excrement in place of ink. A merciful deity would have supplied him with writer's block.
Kaufman's film, based on a play by Doug Wright, mostly takes place after the Marquis (Geoffrey Rush) has once again gone too far, after the excesses of his writing and his life have exhausted the license and privilege granted to aristocracy. In 1801, at 61, after 27 years spent in various prisons, he is sealed up in the insane asylum at Charenton. There he finds a sympathetic friend in the Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), a priest who thinks the Marquis should continue to write, perhaps to purge himself of his noxious fantasies.
The manuscripts are smuggled out of the asylum by Madeleine (Kate Winslet), and find a covert circulation before Napoleon assigns a physician named Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to crack down. The new man's sadistic measures bring out the best in de Sade, who mocks him, taunts him, outsmarts him and remains indomitable almost to the moment of his death.