Titus (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Unlike many of Shakepeare's plays, "Titus Andronicus" has not always been met with universal acclaim. The first of the Bard's tragedies, "Titus Andronicus" is also his bloodiest - filled with gruesome deaths, dismemberments, and other unspeakable acts. When it was first performed (some time during the last decade of the 16th century), it was a rousing success. Indeed, during Shakespeare's lifetime, "Titus Andronicus" was said to be his most popular play. The years, however, were not kind to it. Critics turned against the production, denouncing it for being too sensationalistic, disjointed, and thematically shallow. Some went so far as to suggest that much of the text was not consistent with Shakespeare's style.

The perception of "Titus Andronicus" changed in 1955, when Peter Brook brought a powerful interpretation to the stage (starring Laurence Olivier as Titus). Since then, an increasing number of critics have been won over by the play. And, while Julie Taymor's Titus is not the first version to be filmed, it is by far the most elaborate and eclectic one available. This affords a wide audience the chance to experience a play that has been, to date, one of Shakespeare's least-known enterprises.

Titus is a gory story of betrayal and revenge. It opens with Titus Adronicus (Anthony Hopkins), an aging and respected Roman commander, returning to Rome in the wake of a successful campaign against the Goths. He is greeted by his brother, Marcus (Colm Feore), who attempts to install him as Emperor. Titus refuses, instead throwing his support behind another candidate, Saturnius (Alan Cumming), who is quickly confirmed. One of Saturnius' first declarations as Emperor is that he will take Titus' daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser), as his bride. When Saturnius' brother, Bassianus (James Frain), objects on the grounds that he and Lavinia are already engaged, the Emporer is enraged, but he agrees to choose another. His alternate is Tamora (Jessica Lange), the queen of the Goths who was recently captured by Titus. Dripping honey from her forked tongue, she smooths over quarrels and plays the peacemaker - all in preparation for a war of vengeance to be waged against Titus, who was responsible for the death of her eldest son. With the aid of her faithful Moor lover, Aaron (Harry J. Lennix), she causes the death of Bassianus, allows Lavinia to be raped and mutilated, and entraps two of Titus' sons. These actions drive the old commander into a state of towering rage and grief that sends him over the precipice of madness.

While the dialogue in Titus is taken verbatim from Shakespeare's text, the style is all Taymor's. In her feature debut, the acclaimed stage director (she was behind the visually stunning Broadway version of Disney's "The Lion King") categorically rejects a conventional interpretation of the play. Instead, she sets Titus in a nightmarish netherworld, where traditional Roman costumes and settings are married with trappings from other eras, particularly the 20th century. Consequently, we are treated to the unlikely spectacles of Roman Centurions driving cars and a Goth playing an arcade video game. In many ways, Titus is like an amalgamation of the offbeat styles of Richard Loncraine and Baz Luhrmann (in Richard III and Romeo + Juliet, respectively) with the more traditional (but no less energetic) approach of Kenneth Branagh as applied in Henry V and Hamlet. Titus consistently looks great, although there are occasional visual flourishes that don't work (like the scene where Tamora, disguised as a Fury, comes to visit Titus). And, towards the end, when the subject matter becomes exceptionally tasteless (or should that be tasty?), Taymor borrows a few ingredients from Peter Greenaway's approach to similar circumstances in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

Taymor's tone is not relentlessly bleak - there are bursts of kinetic action and certain scenes are suffused with wry, black humor. And, of course, there are the usual Shakespeare one-liners (the bawdier of which will be understood by the audience). Also, she does not sensationalize the violence. Many of the bloodier acts are hidden from the camera's view. So, while we see the aftermath of the severing of hands and heads, we aren't afforded a direct shot of the actions occurring. Taymor finds the correct balance between indicating brutality and turning Titus into a bloodbath.

The capabilities of the cast are always paramount to the success of a motion picture adaptation of a Shakespeare play. Here, Anthony Hopkins shines as the title character, bringing cold, stern strength to Titus before he sinks into madness, then imbuing the insane commander with a sense of diabolical, demented cleverness (not to mention more than a hint of Hannibal Lecter). Once again, Hopkins re-enforces the easily defended beliefs of many critics that he is one of the best actors of his generation. Plus, he can deliver Shakespeare's lines with a power and conviction that few others can match.

Jessica Lange has had a wildly uneven career, with numerous acting highs (Frances, Music Box) and lows (King Kong). Titus represents one of her better performances - she plays Tamora like a snake-woman: sinuous, seductive, and poisonous. Matching her bite for fatal bite is Harry J. Lennix, who, as Aaron, relishes the role of a villain without any redeeming qualities. (At one point, the Moor comments, "If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.") Alan Cumming plays Saturnicus with an air of impulsive fatuousness. Laura Fraser (who previously appeared opposite Lange in Cousin Bette) offers a touching interpretation of gentle, pretty Lavinia, who loses her tongue and hands. Other key supporting players include Colm Feore as Titus' brother, Marcus; Angus MacFadyen as Titus' son, Lucius; and the pair of Matthew Rhys and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Pitt Mackeson in Ride With the Devil) as Tamora's sons, Demetrius and Chiron.

One of the clearest indications that Titus succeeds is that, despite its nearly three-hour running time, there are few dead spots. Taymor's visual flourishes prove to be an effective compliment for Shakepeare's text, rather than a distraction. This is the best film adaptation of the Bard's work since Kenneth Branagh's brilliant, unabridged Hamlet.

Titus (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 2:42
U.S. Release Date: 1999-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1