Biographical films come wide and varied from the epic in scope (“Amadeus”) to the quiet and more personal (“Shine”), but none that I can recall come as dark and yet mesmerising as this.
“Quills” proves to be one of the most original, elaborate, funny and truly sinister movies of the year – a throughly well-crafted and intricate film steered by great actors giving excellent performances, kept afloat by a clever script with some truly great lines, and backed by very timely issues and themes of free speech & censorship.
Rush’s previous over the top performances in “Shine” and “Shakespeare in Love” have scored him Oscar nominations (one of which won), but neither compares to this – he’s over the top sure, but its totally believable and its just one facet of the character. This is a guy who’ll leave you laughing one second with a great quip, and then in the next shot will hit his wife for not helping him – you love him at one point, and then despise him the next.
The take on De Sade is also interesting – he’s portrayed as a literary hero, a man with a obsessive compulsion to write and spends most of the film doing so with cruder & cruder equipment as each piece is taken away from him. Rush also is very brave spending half the film naked and while his very understated work in “Elizabeth” remains my favourite role I’ve seen him play, this comes a close second. Winslet does one of her standard solid performances as the Marquis’ helper, though its Phoenix as the benevolent and struggling to hold true to his faith priest who will also likely get an Oscar nomination.
Caine plays the one-dimensional bad guy role and does it well, but can’t help but feel tacked on a bit. There’s also a slightly out of place sub-plot about Caine’s wife though stunning beauty Amelia Warner and the ‘younger Dougray Scott’ looking Stephen Moyer will both get a lot of work from these scenes which are good but just don’t really flow with the rest of the film.
Onto the subject matter and its frank, dark and amazingly direct for an American-made feature. Sure it’s about history’s most famous pervert (after all this is the guy who was pretty much the first to give voice to S&M, fetishes and all sorts of kinky sex – ther term ‘sadist’ was named after him), but sex wise aside from some lewd dialogue there isn’t anything terribly erotic here.
It is however darkly violent, as this was after all 18th century France, with some content likely to distress viewers – lots of blood, at least two acts of rape, mutilation, full frontal nudity, use of faeces as a writing instrument, and a dash of necrophilia.
Does the film work – yes and no. A really good comparison is “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”. That was a film with all the elements it needed to created the ultimate film version of Stoker’s tale – yet it didn’t quite make it, getting only about 60% of the way there – it was just lacking that central core of ‘narrative energy’ thus we didn’t get swept up into it as we should have.
“Quills” does manage to tap that energy a bit and comes out as an excellent movie but is still only about 80% of the way there – there by it stops just short of becoming a classic. Nevertheless in a month where films all seem to be floating in the ‘mediocre’ and safe waters of formulaic plots – its great to see a film like this break out of the mold with a fervent energy.