Friday December 24, 1999
"Titus" is more travesty than tragedy, a dynamic film from Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" directed with unflagging energy by Julie Taymor, who brought "The Lion King" to Broadway with much acclaim. But Taymor, who also won plaudits for her 1995 staging of "Titus," is not remotely content to bring the Bard's bloody first tragedy to vigorous life, which would be no small accomplishment considering that it yields Grand Guignol lots more easily than catharsis. No, Taymor has to jazz it up in style and design, intending it to serve as a tragic reflection of the horrors of the 20th century. The result is much visual chaos featuring deliberately jarring and incessant anachronisms, reverberating still further to a frequent rock beat.
Too much all too rarely seems too much to Taymor, which is unfortunate, because in her feature debut she proves to be so compelling a screen storyteller you're never tempted to take a peek at your watch during her film's remarkably zippy two-hour, 45-minute running time. Theatrics that wow audiences when presented live onstage, however, can seem way, way over the top on the big screen.
Taymor opens with a young boy going berserk as he plays with his toy Roman soldiers on an kitchen table in an apartment house about to be bombed. We could be in London during the Blitz, or in Bosnia or Chechnya, for that matter. In any event, a big strong guy picks the kid up and carries him into the center of the Colosseum just in time for a weary but victorious Roman general Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) to enter the vast arena with his troops, his fallen soldiers and his captives, namely Tamora, Queen of Goths (Jessica Lange) and her three sons, the eldest of whom Titus orders slain to appease the gods.
The Romans cheer their returning hero and urge him to become their emperor, but as a rigid traditionalist, he supports the leading claimant, Saturninus (Alan Cumming), a skinny, hysterical decadent. And when Saturninus claims Titus' beloved daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser) as his queen, Titus readily accedes despite Lavinia being in love with Saturninus' brother Bassianus (James Frain). A couple of plot twists later, Bassianus winds up dead and Lavinia suffers a much worse fate, while Saturninus happily claims as his new queen the glamorous Tamora, which puts her in the perfect position to exact revenge for her sacrificed son and defeated people. It also provides ample opportunity for her shrewd, opportunistic lover, Aaron the Moor (Harry J. Lennix), to wreak mayhem as well. By the time "Titus" is over, 14 of its 22 key characters have met grisly deaths--and by then the obtuse Titus has attained in insanity an insight he hitherto lacked.
This "Titus" in effect takes place simultaneously in Roman antiquity, the present and at any comparable dire moment that has occurred in the 20th century. Taymor evokes the fascist grandeur of Mussolini, turns Tamora's surviving sons into layabout Goths in the current sense of the term, and piles on the pop culture motifs with a trowel. Throughout, an undaunted Hopkins gives a towering portrayal of a tragic hero in the robust, straightforward style of the classically trained Shakespearean actor and gives this production whatever dimension and majesty it possesses. (You feel that enduring all the razzmatazz is the price you're having to pay for witnessing a notable portrayal or a Shakespearean hero rarely played on the screen--like watching John Gielgud's splendid Prospero in "Prospero's Books," Peter Greenaway's arty treatment of "The Tempest.")
Lange is not remotely so lucky. First of all, "Titus," for all its mirroring of 20th century chaos and cruelty, is so primitive, so much a gory revenge melodrama of its era, it has been considered by some scholars merely a sketchy rewrite by Shakespeare of someone else's play. Only Titus and Aaron approach tragic dimension, enhanced here by the impassioned playing of Hopkins and Lennix, whose portrayal of the Moor emphasizes his contempt for the hypocritical white man, Goth and Roman alike. Tamora is little more than a soap-opera or old-time serial villainess, and the way Lange, who is photographed relentlessly unflatteringly, is dressed and directed, she seems more like Zsa Zsa Gabor in "The Queen of Outer Space" than the Queen of Goths.
Why waste an actress of the beauty, talent and stature of Lange when a Monique van Vooren or a Mamie Van Doren would not only have sufficed but also been lots more fun. No actress has been so bizarrely gowned (by the gifted Milena Canonero, no less) since Otto Preminger turned Rudi Gernreich loose on Carol Channing in "Skidoo." Shakespeare threatens to lapse into camp, and "Titus," in trying so hard to be relevant, will swiftly seem passe--indeed, it already does.
There are times when "Titus," for all its pretentiousness, actually soars, as in several moments of inspired surreal fantasy. But mainly it functions like a giant meat grinder, making hash of everything it depicts. You watch it with that obscene sense of fascination that a freeway catastrophe and its aftermath generate--but, come to think of it, that may be exactly what Taymor intended.
Titus, 1999. R, for strong violent and sexual images. A Fox Searchlight Pictures and Clear Blue Sky Productions presentation in association with Overseas Film Group. Writer-director Julie Taymor. Based on "Titus Andronicus" by William Shakespeare. Producers Jody Patton, Conchita Airoldi and Taymor. Executive producer Paul G. Allen. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. Editor Francoise Bonnot. Music Elliot Goldenthal. Production designer Dante Ferretti. Art directors Massimo Razzi, Domenico Sica. Set decorator Carlo Gervasi. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes. Anthony Hopkins as Titus Andronicus. Jessica Lange as Tamora. Harry J. Lennix as Aaron. Laura Fraser as Lavinia.