Tuesday, October 25, 2016


Forget Romeo and Juliet. High school students should be introduced to Shakespeare with Titus Andronicus. Forget a couple of teens mistaking hormones for true love; this one contains human sacrifice, cannibalism, dismemberments, decapitations, and possibly the first "Your mom" joke in the history of the English language (and it's a good one).

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.

Like in Shakespeare's other tragedies, the eponymous character of Titus is undone by his own flaws. In this case, Titus' tragic nature is his rigidness and unbending commitment to tradition, even when it's a bad idea. Titus' rejects Tamara's pleas for mercy for her son, creating a mortal enemy in the process that plots the downfall of his family. He backs the weak, unqualified Saturnine over the level-headed Bassianua, and when Saturnine initially tries to choose Lavinia as his bride (just to stick it to Bassianua), Titus kills one of his sons for standing in the way.

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.

In adapting the play, Taymor places more emphasis on young Lucius (Osheen Jones), Titus' grandson. In the play, he has maybe two scenes and a couple of lines. In the movie, he's present in almost every scene as a witness to all the depravity around him. The movie opens with young Lucius in a modern kitchen, playing war with action figures, spilling ketchup all over his toys as mock blood, until a real war erupts around him and a figure takes him to Rome. What began as a game becomes the real thing, and young Lucius is forced to see and feel the real-life consequences of violent behavior. People aren't toys; they get hurt, they bleed, their lives are ruined.

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.

I should mention the performers Hopkins is a great, commanding presence, capable of chewing the scenery in madness and being sympathetic as a broken old man, even if he probably doesn't deserve our sympathy. Lange is wonderful, a ruthless siren who plays the peacekeeper while plotting her vengeance.

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.

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