Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

Censorship, madness, social rebellion and the power of art: With heavy-duty topics like these in the mix, Philip Kaufman's impassioned adaptation of Doug Wright's Obie-winning 1995 play (which owes at least some debt of imagination to Peter Weiss'

notorious Marat/Sade) can't be accused of shallow sensationalism. In 1807, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is confined to the Charenton asylum for the insane, run by the gentle Abbe de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). The abbe believes in treating madness through art and exercise, and

encourages the Marquis to purge his mind of poison by committing his thoughts to paper. The Marquis, naturally, isn't the least bit interested in purging his poisons; instead, he pens stories of such extravagant obscenity they retain the power to shock a full two centuries later. With the help of

free-spirited laundress Madeleine (Kate Winslet), the Marquis smuggles his writings to a publisher, and they cause such a scandal that Napoleon himself sends a new administrator, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), to Charenton. Royer-Collard arrives determined to break the spirit of the

perpetually defiant Marquis, and their escalating battle of wills destroys everyone it touches. Rush is thoroughly delightful as the Marquis, who smirks and leers with unrepentant glee and retains a bizarre dignity in extremis. Wright's play clearly means us to see the battle over De Sade's

pornographic imagination in light of such contemporary concerns as the investigation of the Clinton White House and ongoing cultural debates over obscenity, art and censorship, and he and Kaufman (never the most subtle of filmmakers) come down firmly on the side of free speech, healthy sexuality

and gentle treatment of the insane, and against pious hypocrisy, censorship and erotic repression. As is often the case with Kaufman's films, there's lots of naughty sex (from a cheerful threesome to tormented necrophilia) presented in an extraordinarily unerotic fashion.