Titus (1999)

D: Julie Taymor
S: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange

Strikingly cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus which mounts several spectacular sequences blending props, sets, and costumes from modern and ancient eras to reinforce its thematic concerns. A strong cast led by Anthony Hopkins is also a major asset, as is a stylish score by Elliot Goldenthal. The story is not quite up to the standard expected of Shakespearian adaptation though, a mixture of rapid plotting, clever dialogue, and mean-spirited gruesomeness typical of its era but less familiar to today's 'respectable' audience for the Bard. It is to theatre director Julie Taymor's credit that she has chosen to tackle this play, of course (the film is based upon a 1994 theatrical staging), and it is an interesting film as opposed to a filmed play, which has to count for something. Yet despite many memorable scenes and some great performances, one is left with more of a sense of its visceral force than its dramatic power.

The story concerns the fate of Roman general Titus Andronicus (Hopkins), who returns from a triumphant campaign against the Goths with prisoners including their Queen (Jessica Lange). When the Caesar dies, his two sons (Alan Cumming and James Frain) vie for power. Offered the imperium, Titus refuses in favour of dutiful service to the new emperor, which proves his undoing when selfish, fickle, and foolish Cumming takes control and falls under the influence of Lange (who has only revenge on her mind). The plot moves very fast, and involves a wide palette of characters with variously misguided and villainous motives. Though the characterisation is adequate to the task of propelling things forward, one never quite gets a clear sense of the depths of the various people involved. Fates and fortunes seem to reverse themselves as quickly as they have been established, and sub-plots flit in and out of the primary narrative thrust with alarming suddenness. One sub-plot involving a captured Moor (Harry Jennix) who is also consort to the Gothic Queen gradually becomes more important as the story goes. It also indulges the Elizabethan taste for racism in what amounts to an interesting prelude to Othello. The play is pretty misogynist too, although misanthropy is probably closer to the mark than any particular form of sexual, racial, or cultural hatred, and it is all being done in the name of condemning such values, right? The whole thing climaxes with a feast and massacre which seems to have been conceived more for its shock value than its resolution of the questions raised throughout though, and all the way through there are scenes of murder, torture, and general ghoulishness which will certainly not appeal to fans of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Stripped to its essentials (which doesn't require much effort), Titus is a tale of violence and power which still has meaning for a contemporary audience. Taymor makes her intention clear early on with a pre-credits sequence depicting a child indiscriminately destroying a range of military-themed toys arranged on a kitchen table. As it unfolds the film depicts a world in which the decadence of Rome on its way to ruin is matched with the icons of early twentieth century power, namely the 1930s-style uniforms and technological trappings which were also used in Richard Loncraine's Richard III. One scene neatly collapses the rituals of war and funeral marching in a sneaky homage to movie musical dance routines. The film contrasts Hopkins' honorable devotion to tradition with the feckless emperor's pursuit of personal gratification and the evil Queen's outright maliciousness. The exercise of power inevitably turns on acts of violence, and when Titus himself eventually takes on his enemies in spite of his beliefs, his malevolence, however contextualised, is equally repugnant. A key speech is made near the end by Jennix' unrepentant deviant where he claims that if in life he has done any one good thing, it is that that he regrets. This is a story of unparalleled vileness (in the Shakespeare canon at any rate) at which the audience is required to respond with disgust. Taymor does not stand back from the dark places in the story or imagery, and with the aid of digital technology, graphically depicts the horrendous fate of Titus' daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser). It does have a lot of polemical force, but the film is never exploitative despite moments where the mania of the thing almost tips over into Peter Greenaway-type 'is this really necessary?' territory.

Hopkins is a strong presence at the centre of the tale, convincingly depicting the general's gradual realisation that the corruption of the State will overwhelm him and his family unless he fights back. Lange is a lusty foil as the Gothic Queen, and Cumming is superbly slimy and immature as the emperor Saturninus. All of the supporting roles are filled well. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Matthew Rhys make a suitably contemporary pair of wild Gothic princes, Jennix is menacing as their tutor in depravity. Frain and Fraser acquit themselves well as two of the less blameless characters amid the carnage. Angus MacFayden is a solid Lucius (Titus' son), cutting a figure who is believably the stock of the general himself.

Eye-popping production design by Dante Ferretti, nice costumes by Milena Canonero and cinematography by Luciano Tovoli help to keep things visually interesting, and Taymor does an excellent job of using sets and locations in Croatia and Rome as more than just backdrops to the action. Eliott Goldenthal's score mixes classical, jazz, and techno-punk stylings which increase the sense of hysteria and unease upon which the film trades. Though it is not the hyperkenetic postmodernism of Baz Lurhmann's Romeo + Juliet, the film has energy and pace despite its 162 minute running time. Each scene is well mounted and the film on the whole is weighted to press home its concerns with the nature and effects of violence as an intrinsic component of power. The lack of richness in the basic script has more to do with the maturity of Shakespeare's writing than anything cinematic, but there is, of course, enough there to achieve its ends. Whether or not the film will appeal to you may depend on your taste barometer, though this is one Shakespeare adpation that parents probably won't be eager to push their children into seeing in spite of its moral centre and period dialogue.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.