Dir: Philip Kaufman. US. 2000. 120 mins.

Prod cos: Industry Entertainment. US dist: Fox Searchlight. Int'l dist: 20th Century Fox. Prods: Nick Wechsler, Peter Kaufman, Julia Chasman. Scr: Doug Wright, from his own play. DoP: Roger Stoffers. Prod des: Martin Childs. Ed: Peter Boyle. Mus: Stephen Warbeck. Main cast: Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Malahide.

Power-director Philip Kaufman is back behind the camera for the first time since 1993 with a star-studded cast and the juicy subject of the Marquis de Sade. Quills, however, is only partially successful as thrilling period cinema. Unlike Dangerous Liaisons, with its similar themes of sexual cruelty, hypocrisy and lost love, Quills fails to cohere, veering from character to character without building sufficient interest in any. Scripted by Doug Wright from his own play, it lacks the sense of delicious mischief Stephen Frears so perfectly evoked in Liaisons, also of course adapted from a stage play.

Entertaining nonetheless, Quills has many pleasures and is sure to pull in large crowds of upscale filmgoers who will be drawn by de Sade's sexual antics, four excellent actors all on top form and the promise of sophisticated adult entertainment. Fox Searchlight is releasing the film on December 8, so no doubt will also make a case for Oscar nominations.

Rush relishes his role as de Sade shut away in the Charenton asylum outside Paris for his immoral writings but still churning out the stuff and having it published courtesy of a helpful maid (Winslet) who smuggles the manuscripts out and a benign abbot (Phoenix) who runs the institution. However, on publication of his obscene Augustine, the emperor Napoleon brings in a puritanical doctor (Caine) to shut de Sade up. Coming in over Phoenix's head, Caine sets about stripping de Sade of his scandalous quills, actions which incur the Marquis' wrath and revenge. Meanwhile both de Sade and the abbot have fallen for the virginal serving maid, who herself gets titillated by hearing de Sade's pornographic prose.

A la Larry Flynt, the film makes a case for freedom of artistic expression, although in this case de Sade's sadistic writings do finally inspire appalling violence. It is this final half hour of gruesomeness and degradation that is least satisfactory and overlong; the film is more successful when a lighter tone is employed.