Directed by Philip Kaufman, starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix & Michael Caine

The year is 1814 and as France breathes in a brave new democratic world, one man wages war inside his own head. The Marquis De Sade (Rush) has been imprisoned in the Charenton Asylum for his incendiary texts and their effect on his sex-obsessed fans. Doing not so hard time, the Marquis reads in his study, produces plays for arsonists, engages in intellectual jousts with the institution's benign governor, Abbe Coulmier (Phoenix), and fantasises about jousts of another variety with washer girl Madeleine (Winslet). Despite their wildly differing views on life, the Marquis is indulged by the Abbe who, recognising De Sade's superior intelligence and pitying his off kilter mental state, allows him to write as a form of therapy. But when Napoleon discovers that the Marquis' work is being smuggled out of Charenton and devoured by the French public, he dispatches a brutal doctor, Collard (Caine), to enforce his will behind the walls. Abbe Coulmier is faced with a choice: curtail the Marquis' freedom or face the closure of Charenton.

Only February but you'll be hard pressed to find a better performance this year than that of the troubled triumvirate of Rush, Winslet and Phoenix in 'Quills'. With a feral energy and eye for the bizarre, Kaufman and scriptwriter Doug Wright have blackly distilled the latter years of the Marquis' life into a wry study on the nature of expression and repression - their point as relevant now as 200 years ago. Alternating between searing dialogue and seaside postcard humour 19th Century style, most of the film takes place in a single corridor, reducing the viewer to an inmate and deepening the isolation that each character faces in their lives.

Kaufman brilliantly handles the love and lust triangle between the three leads, delicately highlighting the needs each one sees in the other two, while Caine, in his strongest role in years, is perfect as medicine's answer to Darth Vader, a man driven more by destruction than understanding and with foibles to rival even those of the Marquis. Each role carries with it the potential to grandstand, but Kaufman keeps every performance tight and focused, each actor feeding off the other to create an ensemble piece that is as engrossing as it is harrowing. Warped and wonderful, 'Quills' takes period drama on a tour of the horror house and while it muddies the fact and fiction of De Sade's life, you'll swear you can hear a throaty cackle of approval from the hereafter.

Harry Guerin