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IN SHORT: One of the Best of the Year (so far). [Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, violence and language. 123 minutes]
As we've written before, the end of each year tends to be packed with overly long epics with heavy-handed stories deliberately chosen for their unsavoriness. That means, without proper warning early on you'll be wondering why you spent your money on the ticket. There are a few movies where a single solitary performance by an actor or actress can make up for, uh, scenes of festering junkie induced sores on arms and legs and such things like that...
And then, once in a while, you get a story with an unsavory background that's really well developed, darkly funny and features not one, not two, but at least three Oscar worthy performances. Such a movie is the topic of this review and it is called Quills.
Here's the only warning you'll get. Quills is inspired by the final years of the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush). That means that Quills is packed to the gills with blood and sex and irony and hard R pornographic linguistics and deceit and hints of necrophilia and hypocrisy and some incredibly horrific visuals. No, no one dresses in a spiked leather suits and whips naked nubile young things -- the Internet chat rooms have been abuzz with thoughts of Kate Winslet naked in this flick. Given the age of most of the kidlets in those chat rooms, they won't be sexually turned on. They'll be screaming in shock. Perfectly in keeping with things de Sade.
It must be remembered that what is obscene and pornographic by 21st century standards is quite a bit different than what was considered obscene and pornographic in the 18th-century. The words of the Marquis de Sade, from his novel "Justine," read to the Emperor Napoleon (Ron Cook) are more biologically correct then gratuitous by modern standards. Simply, you'd find dirtier things in the letters to Penthouse magazine.
What is important to note about Quills, is that there is almost nothing gratuitous in Doug Wright's adaptation of his award winning stage play. Wright has taken the known facts that de Sade was imprisoned in an asylum for the last 30 years of his life; that he had some kind of relationship with a chamber maid working in the asylum, here named Madeline (Kate Winslet) and that Emperor Napoleon did send a doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to treat the Marquis with very vicious "scientific" methods more akin to sadism (sic) than medicine. These include what look to be medieval torture devices with names like the "calming chair" in which a patient is strapped and bolted into an iron chair and dunked backwards into a vat of cold water. For hours every day. For months at a time.
Wright fashions a story that goes far beyond any preconceptions that we may have had about what the pervert de Sade may have been like, and twists them to his own delicious ends. Quills is filled with a tremendous amount of dry humor. De Sade is amused that his "incendiary prose" is ordered burned in a public square by the diminutive Emperor. That the words even made it to a publisher enrages the Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who is in charge of the asylum. The Abbé has allowed de Sade to continue writing in the belief that putting it on parchment was a safer and potentially more curative outlet than letting the man take his perverted fantasies out on other inmates. Or livestock. Or himself. Or corpses, what have you. De Sade's imagination, even to this day, still sets the lowest possible standard for the most perverse kind of thought. But it is read by everyone. The Abbé. The chambermaid. The Emperor. The people in the street. The doctor's wife . . .
And tell me what you would make of a 62 seven-year-old doctor whose new bride, Simone (Amelia Warner) is a 15 going on 16 year old orphan girl, raised by nuns. The doctor is rich enough that he can pay to have every her material want and need fulfilled in the new house that the Emperor has provided. Certain needs, however, are left inflamed by the hidden, banned works that she hides inside books of poetry and unsatisfied by her elderly mate.
Everyone is affected by the Marquis. As the punishments for writing grow ever more severe, the old man comes up with ways to subvert them, every time. As Quills moves into its final act, a battle of wits becomes one laced with revenge and horror. But the ultimate confrontation, while set up in the very beginning of the story, virtually disappears while the Doctor is busy attending to the architectural needs of his new home. It is our only disappointment with the story, that the tension does not build throughout the story. But there are multiple relationships at work between all the characters: the Abbé and the Maid; the Abbé and the Doctor; the Doctor and his Wife; the Wife and her lover. Not to mention the politics of the asylum; backbiting between the employees and the mini-story arcs of a quartet of loonies whose living quarters are not as luxurious as those of the Marquis.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Quills, he would have paid...
Quills is a brilliant, adult movie. It is funny and it is tragic and it is perverse, so we tip our hats to director Philip Kaufman, the cast and the playwright for it. Multiple story arcs fit nearly seamlessly. Terrific performances across the board. And one surprise after another. Highly recommended.
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