Screenplay : Julie Taymor (adapted from "Titus Andronicus" by William Shakespeare)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Anthony Hopkins (Titus Andronicus), Jessica Lange (Tamora), Alan Cumming (Saturninus), Harry J. Lennix (Aaron), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Chiron), Matthew Rhys (Demetrius), Angus MacFadyen (Lucius), Laura Fraser (Lavinia Colm), Feore (Marcus), James Frain (Bassianus), Osheen Jones (Young Lucius), Raz Degan (Alarbus)
William Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" was pure Grand Guignol 300 years before Oscar Méténier invented the infamous Parisian theatrical concoction of overwrought melodrama, twisting plotlines, and outlandish gore effects. Featuring rape, murder, mutilation, decapitation, sacrifice, torture, feigned insanity, and the biggest taboo of them all--cannibalism--"Titus Andronicus" left no stone unturned, and is yet another nail in the coffin of the labored argument that ghastly gore and human depravity as entertainment was somehow an invention of the 20th century.
With its title shortened to one, hard word, "Titus" has been realized on-screen in a grand visual fashion that suits its material well. The film was adapted and directed by Julie Taymor, who had directed it in much a similar manner off-Broadway in 1994, but is far more famous for her unconventional yet highly successful stage adaptation of Disney's "The Lion King."
As a directorial debut, "Titus" is breathtaking. It is a lavish, visual extravaganza that follows in the over-the-top theatrics of great European directors like Frederico Fellini ("Fellini Satyricon), Pier Paolo Pasolini ("The Canterbury Tales"), and Luchino Visconti ("The Damned"). The film plays with time and place, mixing and matching historical periods ranging from ancient Rome to early-20th-century Europe.
One scene might take place in a crumbling coliseum, while the next might take place in an art deco palace. Heavy armor, swords, and mounted horses mix with machine guns, tanks, and vintage cars. Music changes from Elliot Goldenthal's luscious orchestral score to '20s jazz beats to industrial heavy metal. It is almost overwhelming in its near-ludicrous excess, yet somehow it works. Even amid the blood and melodrama, Shakespeare's words and his uncanny ability to create deeply flawed human characters who gain our sympathy despite digging their own graves gives the film a human edge that keeps our attention.
The film opens with the victorious return to Rome of the great general Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins). After defeating the enemy Goths (and losing 21 of his sons in the process), he is offered the Emperor's seat, but instead he defers to Saturninus (Alan Cumming), the weasley, slightly androgynous son of the recently deceased Caesar. This turns out to be a major mistake, as Saturninus takes as his wife the captured Goth queen, Tamora (Jessica Lange). Tamora has great reason to hate Titus because Titus killed her oldest son in a religious ritual. Her two other sons, Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) and Chiron (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), live in the palace, and Tamora utilizes them to wreck havoc on Titus' family.
Tamora also brings to the palace with her a Moor named Aaron (Harry J. Lennix), who is her secret lover. Aaron ends up causing no end of trouble for everyone. In fact, he is sort of a vicious precursor to Puck from "A Midsummer Night's Dream," but instead of sneaking around causing mischief with love potions, he concocts schemes and pits people against each other to end in murder. Aaron is so bad, in fact, that his final line is, "If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul."
"Titus Andronicus" was Shakespeare first tragedy and one of his first monetary major successes, although it is viewed by critics nowadays as either his worst play or a 16th-century version of self-conscious camp. When he wrote it, Shakespeare's inspiration was the myth of Philomel, who is raped and her tongue cut out so she cannot name her attackers. The beginning of the end in "Titus" is when Tamora allows her sons to do this to Titus's daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser), and two of Titus' sons are blamed for the deed and put to death.
Losing two sons and having a daughter whose chastity has been stolen along with her hands and her tongue is too much for Titus to handle, and one of the film's most striking scenes is Titus laughing when he is faced with the decapitated heads of his two sons. When asked why he is laughing, he says it is because he has no more tears left to shed. There is nothing to do but laugh.
"Titus" works largely on the strength of Anthony Hopkins's superb performance in the central role. He makes Titus into a believable, flawed character, a man who attempts to do right by both his family and his country, but ends up destroying both of them through his endless bad decisions. He is a man who suffers emotionally because those around him are made to suffer physically. When he laughs at the sight of his dead sons, it is entirely believable because of all he has already been through. Thus, when he seeks vengeance at the end by inflicting even worse physical misery on his enemies, we side with him despite the cruel (and truly sick) nature of his revenge.
While "Titus" is not the most violent film adaptation of Shakespeare (that distinction still rests with Roman Polanski's unnervingly bloody--and brilliant--1971 version of "Macbeth"), it still has its share of nightmarish images and surreal violence. The rape and mutilation of Lavinia, while not shown on-screen, is nonetheless the film's most haunting image because Taymor's camera lingers on the aftermath. Situated in a burned-out section of forest, where only dead stumps rise out of the mud, it is truly the stuff of an edgy horror film, where the importance is not on the act itself, but on the effects.
Julie Taymor shows that she is just as talented behind the camera as she is in the theater. Her directorial style has a deliberate theatrical quality; her compositions are self-consciously stagey and geometrical. Working with cinematographer Luciano Tavoli (who worked on two films with famed Italian horror maestro Dario Argento) and production designer Dante Ferretti (whose work with Pier Paolo Pasolini has informed the overall look of "Titus"), she creates an impressively tangible atmosphere where we can almost smell the blood. Yet, at the same time, she maintains a certain distance through the very stage-like quality of the production and the use of surrealism to give the film an overall dream-like quality.
It is of little surprise that the film opens with a young boy, who has been playing with soldiers in the kitchen of what appears to be a modern home, being literally ripped from his world and taken into the world of the "Titus" where he will become a part of the narrative. The experience of watching "Titus" is remarkably similar, in that it transports you completely into a world that has never existed, and yet is wholly convincing.
16x9 Enhanced: Yes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround; Dolby 2.0 Surround
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Extras: Scene-specific audio commentaries by (1) director Julie Taymor and (2) stars Anthony Hopkins and Harry Lennix; isolated score and commentary by composer Elliot Goldenthal; "The Making Of Titus" 49-minute documentary; Columbia University Q & A with Julie Taymor; costume gallery; "Penny Arcade Nightmare" featurette on the visual effects; original theatrical trailer; video trailer and four TV spots; two American Cinematographer interviews
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Video: The anamorphic image on this DVD is quite impressive. Transferred in the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (the film makes great compositional use of the widescreen, and to watch it in pan-and-scan would truly be a travesty), the sharp, clean image gives Julie Taymor's incredibly vision its due. Many of the scenes takes place at night or in dark, underground rooms, and the contrast and black levels are both perfect. The brighter scenes are just as good, with fine detail and nicely saturated colors. There were no noticeable digital artifacts, although there did appear to be a speck or two of dust from the original elements. These are hardly distracting, though, as the overall transfer is gorgeous.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is nicely rendered, although it is not particularly creative in its use of the surround channels or directionality. Elliot Goldenthal's magnificent score is given prominence during much of the soundtrack, but never at the expense of dialogue, which is always clear and audible. The low-frequency effects channel is used sparingly, but effectively, especially in the theatrical opening moments.
Extras: Although not released under its "Five Star Collection" banner, 20th Century Fox has seen fit to release "Titus" as a special edition in a two-disc set that is loaded with good extras. The second disc contains most of the extras, the first of which is "The Making of 'Titus,'" a great 49-minute documentary, which is conveniently divided into 11 chapters. This is the way all behind-the-scenes documentaries should be, taking us inside the creative process from the beginning as the actors come together for the first time, discuss their parts, rehearse, and then onto the soundstages where the sets are built and the scenes filmed. When interviewed, the actors actually talk about how they feel about their characters and what they did to prepare for the shoot, rather than just congratulating each other on how "great so-and-so was to work with." The costume gallery gives some more background peeks at the creation of the film's unique stylistic look, while "Penny Arcade Nightmares" offers rough assembly footage and commentary by visual effects technician Kyle Cooper on how the film's surrealistic dream sequences were put together. The first disc in the set contains the film with three separate audio commentary tracks, one of with director Julie Taymor (definitely the best of the three), a second with actors Anthony Hopkins and Harry Lennix (which is good, but has too many long pauses), and a third with composer Elliot Goldental (this is actually an isolated music track in which Goldenthal talks whenever there is no music on the soundtrack). If you can't get enough of Julie Taymor's explanation in her commentary track, there is also a 30-minute abridged question-and-answer filmed at Columbia University in February 2000 with a group of film students after a screening of the film. Also included are two interesting articles reprinted from "American Cinematographer" magazine that focus (obviously) on the visual look of the film. The original theatrical trailer, a video trailer, and four TV spots complete the second disc.
Copyright © 2000 James Kendrick