This critique is being written after viewing a DVD copy of the Julie Taymor adaptation of Titus Andronicus simply titled “Titus.” The film stars Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. “Titus” was produced in 1999 by Clear Blue Sky Productions and released by 20th Century Fox.
The story line of the play by William Shakespeare deals with a returning war hero shortly after the death of the reigning Emperor of Rome. Titus Andronicus is offered the crown and refuses it and through a series of bad decisions contributes to his own destruction. The film follows the play closely, but brings it to life in a modern and surreal setting. If the plays of William Shakespeare are indeed meant to be seen rather than read, this adaptation should be one of the “main courses.”
The style of the film is like modern Las Vegas kitsch with a jazz element and scenes of parties and debauchery that would make sin city blush. Many of these scenes in the film deal with the excesses of the wealthy and the results of the foolish being in power. The jazz music in the film is used to equate that style of music with evil. There are scenes that are representative of ancient Rome as well as modern or post World War Two Italy. The juxtaposition of marching Roman soldiers alongside motorcycles presents a “Mad Max” feel to the opening sequences. The director exhibits the violence of Shakespeare’s most bloody play and takes it one step more. The violence is grisly and disturbing, but stylized and somewhat dark yet humorous. The banquet scene at the end of the film illustrates this dark humor in spite of the fact that in a short time Andronicus will serve the Queen a meal of her two sons and nearly everyone dies. The audience laughs and cringes uncomfortably along with Anthony Hopkins’ Titus as he grins and licks his lips while witnessing the horrible meal. It is difficult during this scene not to be reminded of another of Hopkins carnivorous characters. Hannibal Lecter showed up uninvited in Taymors’ production of “Titus.” It was inevitable given the menu choice.
The production values of this film were very well presented and extremely amazing. The sets were actual scenes in the Italian or Roman countryside and city where this would have taken place. This lends more realism to the film. Shakespeare’s storyline in this setting does not appear as realism and the audience of this film is exposed to a combination of ancient and “neo-Roman” images. The soldiers returning from war and the choreography of their opening “spear dance” is both awe inspiring and terrifying.
The characterizations and the motivation of the characters are done well with one glaring exception. Harry Lennix portrays the evil and plotting character, Aaron. He was not exceptionally villainous or overtly plotting but tended to blend into the scenes as just another character. Over the top evil would have worked in the actual characterization. This vile character ranks as TopTen.coms’number one Shakespeare villain however; Lennix seems to waste a good opportunity for villain hall of fame.
The feel of the film is exaggeration and theatrical overstating, but it works well in this context. This is evident in the dinner scene as the Emperor is being killed with a grotesque oversized serving spoon. The camera freezes into a 360 degree stop action snapshot of the murder/revenge scene. This is impossible to do on stage obviously, but it is certainly a guilty pleasure on film. The excellent staging, very hip stylization and production values of “Titus” make the two hours and forty two minutes a good investment of time.