William Shakespeare wasn't afraid to put the odd risqué line into his plays, but the Bard is like Mary Whitehouse when compared to the Marquis De Sade. No sexual perversity was sacred to this infamous author, whose novels (including Justine and The 120 Days Of Sodom) are still considered by many so obscene as to be almost unprintable.
A scourge of French society, the Marquis spent 27 years in prison and eventually died in the insane asylum at Charenton. It's here that Doug Wright sets his screenplay, loosely imagining the final years of the lewd literary rebel's life. But Quills is not a dusty period biopic, nor is it a Carry On-style cross between Shakespeare In Love and the readers' letters pages of Escort magazine. Most importantly, it embodies both sides of the censorship debate and in flesh-and-blood characters.
As he proved in Henry & June, director Philip Kaufman is no stranger to bringing erotic fiction to the big screen. This time, the dirty bits are verbal rather than visual, as words are shown to be powerful enough to disturb even emperors. The French Revolution may have turned society on its head, but the Marquis' work - genuinely underground literature with a cult following - is portrayed as dangerous because it united the classes. For some, it's nudge-nudge entertainment; for others, women in particular, it's liberating.
As you'd expect with the man whose name coined the term `sadist', pleasure and pain aren't exactly opposites in the Marquis' world. Likewise, the film argues, good and evil aren't contradictory forces but bound together inside everyone. So while the idealistic Abbé Coulmier (Phoenix) and the depraved Marquis De Sade (Rush) are, on the surface, an angel and a devil, they're revealed to be complex individuals who lust after Kate Winslet's Madeleine in equal measure.
The quality performances convey these complexities, with Geoffrey Rush bringing a shabby dignity and faded grandeur to the Marquis. Phoenix's man of the cloth is dark and sexy but naive and anguished, while Winslet's down-to-earth approach shows how the straightforward Madeleine can be seduced by the Marquis' charisma.
Michael Caine is also in fine form as the hypocritical doctor whose surgery resembles a torture chamber and who locks his virginal bride behind bars. He's the true sadist here, and the mind games between these characters are as gripping as they are thematically important.
Part literary Lecter, part hyper-intelligent Finbar Saunders, the Marquis perfectly illustrates the battle of censorship versus free speech. But Quills isn't a heavy debate - it's a thrilling drama with a dark humour that stings like a dominatrix's whip.