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TITUS(director/writer: Julie Taymor; screenwriter: from a play by William Shakespeare “Titus Andronicus”; cinematographer: Luciano Tovoli; editor: Francois Bonnot; cast: Anthony Hopkins (Titus), Jessica Lange (Tamora), Alan Cumming (Saturnius), Harry Lennix (Aaron), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Chiron), Matthew Rhys (Demetrius), Angus Macfadyen (Lucius), Colm Feore (Marcus), James Frain (Bassianus), Laura Fraser (Lavinia), Osheen Jones (Young Lucius); Runtime: 162; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 1999-US/Italy)
“A further vulgarization of Shakespeare’s most vulgar play.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A further vulgarization of Shakespeare’s most vulgar play. It succeeds in going over the top and losing its sensibilities without adding anything worthwhile to take the place of what was lost, yet it is not without its positives. This early tragedy written by the young bard is also his weakest and most turbulent play, casting out devices for dramatic dimensions and poetry — in favor of showing gore. It is a difficult one to come to terms with, except to see it for its dark humor and parody. Julie Taymor (theater-version of Disney’s “The Lion King”), the female director/writer, who put this elaborate production on as an experimental off-Broadway play, films it as a revenge story that has a surreal look of time travel (a grandson of Titus’ is playing soldiers on the kitchen table when Titus marches in from ancient Rome and shows him what happened back then). She also plays up the contemporary political intrigues in Rome with those of ancient Rome, thereby pointing out how little we have learned from the past. She also highlights the darkened hearts of all who seek revenge for their hurts; and, gleefully, in a campy way, she shows how they get this revenge.

Anthony Hopkins plays Titus with the same kitsch he played Hannibal Lecter, but without the same results. Unfortunately, for him, this was a different picture and his overacting grew wearisome. The film was also overlong at 162 minutes, without having a sufficient reason for being that long.

Titus returns from conquering the Goths but paying the heavy price of having 21 of his sons killed in battle, with only 4 remaining. He brings back the loser’s empress, Tamora (Lange), and her three sons as captives. Titus, despite the mother’s pleas for mercy, slays her eldest son Alarbus and throws him in the fire as revenge for the death of his sons, but spares her and the two other sons, Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys). Mother, tattooed and clad in gold lame and matching gold breastplates, whispers to her remaining sons of the need for revenge.

The new emperor crowned is Saturnius (Cumming). He is the unpopular son of the last emperor but has the reluctant blessing of Titus — who turns down the mobs’ cries for him to be crowned. Cumming’s plays his role as an insecure, campy effete, prancing about as a poof, coifed in an Adolph Hitler hairstyle, as he aims to steal every scene by his gyrations and petulant looks. Lange’s idea for a hurt queen, is to seethe like a snake throughout; while Hopkins is the loyal general to Rome who is betrayed by politics, loudly spitting his lines out as if he were saying the most urgent things for the world to hear. The film goes back and forth in time by showing a child dropped into ancient Rome–Alice in Wonderland-style–then showing the lifestyle from the decadent Fascist Italy of Il Duce. It all seems glossy and avant-garde but, surprisingly, the film remains most faithful to Shakespeare’ text.

When Saturnius surprises Titus by choosing his daughter Lavinia (Fraser) as his queen, her promised husband Bassianus (Frain) reacts by kidnapping her from the emperor — with the help of Titus’s sons. Titus feels he has been disgraced in Rome and slays his youngest son, showing his allegiance to Rome over family. With the loss of Lavinia, Saturnius is attracted to the pagan goddess Tamora and marries her instead; but, he does not forgive Titus’s sons for their kidnapping.

Tamora soon gets her revenge on Titus: as Marcus (Feore), Titus’s brother, finds Lavinia looking like a scarecrow in the field after being brutally raped and mutilated with Tamora’s approval. Her boys have cut out her tongue and cut off her limbs. The evil Moor, Aaron (Lennix), Tamora’s secret lover, plays Saturnius off against Titus, spitefully orchestrating the vengeful deceptions. After Bassianus is murdered and two of Titus’s sons are trapped in a hole in the woods, the Moor delivers the message to Titus that the emperor requires the hand of Lucius as revenge to free the trapped sons. Titus gladly has his hand chopped off by Aaron as payment, but instead of his sons being returned– the heads of his sons are chopped off and returned by messenger. Aaron betrayed him to the emperor and told him it was Titus’s hand not his son’s. Lucius, the remaining son, is banished from Rome and joins the Goths to attack Rome.

The morbid humor comes about as Titus gets his revenge and reverts from being simply a warrior to a philosopher, carrying his woes inside him like he does his broken heart for Rome and for his family. He will serve meat pies to the unsuspecting Tamora, who reacts with horror when told what she just ate were her sons’ body parts. Titus will then slit her throat, smacking his lips with delight as his chef’s hat bobs up and down. The emperor’s fate is also sealed in a similar manner.

Not every work by Shakespeare has to be great. But if the bard wrote it, there has to be something there worthwhile. This one suffers from worldliness and hollowness; I doubt if any screenplay could rescue it from its banality of violence. Julie Taymor’s version was a good costumed effort to show the violence for all that it is, but in the process making it into a campy Grand Guignol production. On a more serious note, she also shows the following: that racial hatred begets more hatred, the links to Saturnius with modern fascism, that debauchery by the pagan queen leads to a society where children grow up without values; and, finally, there is the madness of Titus to consider, the film’s protagonist, who kills children — his own and others. The only hope for the future is in the children: a young Lucius who must learn to become less hateful and the bastard son of Aaron, who must get past his father’s blistering racial bitterness.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”