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Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Malahide, Amelia Warner, Jane Menelaus, Stephen Moyer
The infamous writer, The Marquis de Sade of 18th Century France, is imprisoned for unmentionable activities at Charanton Insane Asylumn. He manages to befriend the young Abbe de Coulmier, who run's the asylumn, along with a beautiful laundress named Madeline. Things go terribly wrong when the Abbe finds out that the Marquis' books are being secretly published. Emperor Napolean contemplates sending Dr. Royer-Collard to oversee the asylumn, a man famed for his torturous punishments. It could mean the end of Charanton and possibly the Marquis himself.
Director Philip Kaufman while not being widely renowned is behind some decent Hollywood output and clearly considers his films carefully being that he takes some years between projects. And while he may be most famous for a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) or space-age Oscar success, The Right Stuff (1983) he seems to genre hop with consummate ease. No surprise then that he creates a film more than befitting the biopic of French literature maverick, the Marquis De Sade.
Like many of his previous work Kaufman has assembled a powerhouse cast who all shine in their particular roles, not least Geoffrey Rush who brings a wild-eyed absurdity to the lead role of the crazed writer. The story is of a particular period of the Marquis de Sade’s life. He is incarcerated in an insane asylum for sexual deviancy. However, under the ruling of the Abbe Du Coulmier (played with expert repression by Joaquin Phoenix) the Marquis leads a relatively comfortable existence where he is afforded the luxury of being able to write.
Trouble starts when he enlists the help of Madeline, a laundress who is exhilarated not only by secretly publishing his work but especially by the man and his words. The literature’s racy content is seen as a danger to society by the ruling Napoleon who employs the ruthless Dr Royer-Collard to take over the institution and subdue the unruly prisoners.
Immediately Royer-Collard sets out to rule with an iron fist while he also attempts to build a wonderful home for his very young wife. A battle of wills breaks out between the Doctor and the Marquis. Madeline and he continue to find routes for his work to get out. That simply drives the Doctor to further extremes, and as his wife succumbs to the lure of the sordid literature and the young architect engaged to create her dream home, the film builds frantically towards its climax. Along the way the Marquis’ health and mental state deteriorate, but his drive and insanity rouse the other inmates and before long its a case of the inmates taking over the asylum, literally!
While this is quintessentially a French story, one of revolutionary thinking, pleasure, art etc, the film itself feels very much like a British affair, in spite of its antipodean’ star and American involvement. The rest of the cast mixed with the look and feel of the film, for me anyway, feels very much like other amusing period pieces.
What is over-arching about the piece though are the performances, aside from the brilliant Rush in the lead. Kate Winslet as Madeline is so natural and effervescent, Phoenix portrays great turmoil as the tempted priest and Michael Caine is taut as the over-bearing Doctor. It is them bringing to life the already infamous and wild story of the Marquis that make for really enjoyable viewing.
Review by Stefan Leverton 31/03/10