Quills is the sort of historical period piece that is frustrating, feeling both fascinating and inaccessible. The film revolves around Marquis de Sade, a nefarious and deeply troubled aristocrat with a knack for causing controversy with his explicit writings. The film documents his relationship with a chamber maid, who helps smuggle out his writings, and the ramifications of it.
The film's take on de Sade is fascinating. It portrays a man that is relentless in his quest to spread his vile writings, with Geoffrey Rush giving a very fine performance. We see a self obsessed, driven, but certainly psychotic man. The film uses this to examine themes of expression and moral ambiguity, which I appreciated. It's also matched with equally strong performances by Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, and, above all, Michael Caine.
Where the film becomes frustrating, however, is in the supporting characters. Their actions never seem believable, and are frustratingly irrational. It's as if they are acting as they would in the mind of de Sade, without any respect to the actual context of the situation. Their character arcs don't feel organic to the events that are transpiring, making the film often disengaging and hard to watch. This is especially true of Kate Winslet's character, whose fascination with de Sade is never fully explored, and with Phoenix's character, who is simply written as an ignorant, highly emotional, and weak man. The themes the film brings up are interesting, but without other dynamic characters to compliment Rush, it's of no use.
The dramatic action of Quills never seems to culminate in anything. There's interesting points, but to no real payoff to them. Overall, there's enough here to hold your interest, with a good premise, but a frustrating execution.