Titus (1999)


The story of Titus Andronicus is a fascinating dissertation on human violence, and in the hands of visionary director Julie Taymor (Frida, Across the Universe), it becomes an orgasm of cinematic delight. It opens in the aftermath of war, as Titus (Anthony Hopkins) returns victorious to Rome, having just defeated the Goths and captured their queen, Tamora (Jessica Lange), and her sons.  Fulfilling his religious duties, Titus disembowels Tamora's eldest son and burns his entrails before her. This begins a downward spiral of revenge and madness that ultimately destroys both families and rattles the foundation of Roman government. In grand Shakespearean fashion, the story ends in a dinner finale in which nearly everyone is killed (and some are baked into pies!)

The characters in Titus are complex and all of them are capable of violence. No character, aside from Tamora’s duplicitous lover-on-the-side, Aaron (Harry Lennix), is purely good or purely evil. Tamora is introduced to us as a sympathetic character, a queen brought to her knees, begging for the life of her son. Later she commands her sons Demetrius and Chrion (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Matthew Rhys) to rape Titus’ daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser), stating, “the worse to her the better loved of me”. When she gives birth to Aaron’s son, she orders it killed. As members of the audience we understand her motivations and still maintain some degree of empathy for her, even though she is ultimately a villain. Likewise, Titus is introduced to us as a stoic, rigid man, bound by law and tradition. He’s quite difficult to love, but as he’s worn down by Tamora, stripped from his armor — both physically and emotionally — we eventually come to see him as an evuncular old man laughing in the face of terrible misfortune.

With such dark thematic material, Julie Taymor was certain to close the curtain on a ray of hope, literally. At the end of the movie, after his father Lucius becomes emperor and sentences Aaron to death, Young Lucius (who earlier stabbed at flies) takes Aaron’s baby into his arms and carries him into the sunrise. Without adding or changing any of Shakespeare’s original text, Taymor deliberately added Young Lucius’ presence to all the movie’s many acts of violence. The prelude to the film mirrors the epilogue, showing the young boy playing with violent toys and getting caught up in a behavioral frenzy that spirals into actual warfare – with a cannonball tearing into the room and a clown coming to rescue the boy and deliver him to the coliseum, the ultimate symbol of violence, or what Taymor calls “the archetypal theatre of cruetly.”  By including Young Lucius so deliberately, Taymor puts the story in a fresh perspective – what does all the violence mean?  How does it affect us?  What does it do to our children?

Titus gains added dimension from Taymor’s visual adaptation. Collaborating with production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Milena Canonero, Taymor creates an anachronistic world that blends time and space. Modern architecture is mixed with ancient Rome’s, chariots ride alongside motorcycles, and props include such modern inventions as steel-riveted thrones and zip-loc bags.  What could easily have been a jarring aesthetic is instead successful in setting the story “neverwhere” and “neverwhen,” making it all the more accessible and relevant to audiences, no matter when and where you see it. Composer Elliot Goldenthal implements this concept in his grand score to the film, one that contains traditional orchestra, jazz-rock, and industrial music. Bringing the images to life is veteran cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, who commands the lighting in much the same way he did Dario Argento’s Suspiria — with high contrast lighting and vivid colors.

Another of Taymor’s contributions is what she calls “Penny Arcade Nightmares” – montage-like sequences that utilize special effects photography and superimposed images to convey characters’ heightened emotions.  The first sequence depicts the rift between Titus and Tamora, presenting them in confrontational profiles with fire and severed body parts flying between them. Another recounts the rape scene, in which Lavinia is dressed like a doe caught between flash-cut images of pouncing tigers and her attackers, Demetrius and Chiron. These unique, singularly cinematic moments help Taymor’s film version of Titus burst through the confines of the theater stage.

Taymor’s acting ensemble is a collection of venerable award-winners. Everyone is so comfortable with the language, and so natural in their deliveries, they make the characters’ world a completely accessible one. This is my favorite role for Anthony Hopkins because it offers him his greatest demonstration of range to date — from begging face down in the road for the life of his sons, to laughing half-mad and splashing around in a bathtub. Jessica Lange is equally brilliant (and this was her very first performance of Shakespeare). Since Tamora is always scheming, there are multiple things going on in Lange’s performance. Some of her line readings send a chill down my spine. Harry Lennix fills the role of Aaron with delightful aplomb (he also played Aaron in Taymor’s own stage version years earlier). The Emperor Saturninus is brought to life by Tony award-winner Alan Cumming, who provides the character tremendous energy during his many bursts of outrage, but also gives him a few moments of tenderness and doubt.

The story of Titus is as relevant and compelling as ever before. Julie Taymor’s film is true to the material and daring in its aesthetic experimentation, showcasing exemplary artistry and craftsmanship from every aspect of cinema — writing, directing, acting, wardrobe, production design, photography, music, and more. It’s almost overwhelming, too beautiful to bear.

Oscar Nomination: Best Costume Design

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