Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Titus Andronicus is an early Shakespeare, regarded by many scholars as one of his worst, but ironically, Titus (1999), adapted and directed by Julie Taymor, proves to be one of the most ambitious and successful film adaptations of the Bard's work. It's frenetic, surreal, darkly funny, pretentious, sprawling, gimmicky, in-your-face, ghastly, and all packed in at more than two-and-a-half hours. I'm not sure what kind of audience this is intended for, but it's wonderfully bloody and glorious.
General Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) returns to Rome after a successful campaign against the Goths with the Goth Queen Tamara (Jessica Lange) in tow, along with her sons. Having lost 21 of his own sons in the war, Titus allows his surviving sons to sacrifice Tamara's eldest. Soon after, he declines the offer to become emperor, instead backing Saturnine (Alan Cumming), even though Titus' daughter Lavinia (Laura Frasier) is engaged to Saturnine's brother, Bassianus (James Frain). Eventually, Saturnine chooses his empress: Tamara, who has sworn vengeance against Titus.
Titus, both the play and character, is violent, and Taymor turns her adaptation into a commentary on violence and its effects. Pretty much everyone in the play uses violence, in increasingly gruesome and depraved ways, to get what they want and exert control over others. Revenge becomes a vicious, never-ending cycle; as soon as one wrong is seemingly righted, another character swears revenge against the person who just achieved theirs. It constantly escalates.
Taymor makes the interesting decision to be anachronistic. The story is set in Rome, and we get the stone steps, the columns, the tunics, but we also get cars, motorcycles, suits, video games, billiards, swimming pools, and jazz bands. It's Ancient Rome crossed with fascist Italy, the decadence of the Roaring 20s, and the amorality of the 90s, suggesting a surreal world. It's very stylized, reflective of the characters and their states of minds. At the height of his despair, Titus stands at a literal crossroads. After Tamara's son Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) rape and mutilate her, Lavinia stands in the center of a mucky swamp, surrounded by the stumps of dead trees.
Titus is also a funny movie, like really funny, especially in the way it piles on the atrocities with a droll touch. At one point, two of Titus' sons are condemned to death, but Titus is told by Aaron (Harry Lennix) that if he, his brother Marcus (Colm Feore), or son Lucius (Angus MacFadyen) cut off one of their hands and send it to the emperor, he'll pardon them. The three argue over who's going to cut off their hand until Titus tricks the others into leaving the room while he has Aaron chop off his hand. It's hard to describe that scene properly, but because of the timing and performances, it's hysterical in its ghastliness.
Other performers are solid, but the best is Lennix as the Moor Aaron, Tamara's lover and arguably the most evil character, a man who gloats and delights in causing misery and pain in others. As written in the play, Aaron is a one-dimensional villain (and a racist caricature), but Lennix imbues him with much more complexity and even inner dignity (note the parade of prisoners in the opening scene: it's Tamara and her sons in a cart, then treasure, and lastly Aaron who must walk). There's a touch of Iago and Richard III to him as he addresses the camera and includes the audience in his devious schemes.