USA, 1999. Rated R. 162 minutes.

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Harry Lennix, Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, Angus MacFadyen, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Laura Fraser, Matthew Rhys, Constantine Gregory, James Frain, Osheen Jones
Writer: Julie Taymor (from the play Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare)
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
Cinematographer: Luciano Tovoli
Producers: Conchita Airoldi, Jody Patton, Julie Taymor
Director: Julie Taymor

Grade: B Review by Dana Knowles

Far more entertaining than it has any right to be, Titus is a brutal, busy, messy, sometimes darkly funny epic about revenge as historical Mobius strip... a twisted plane from which there is no escape. The plot is relentlessy melodramatic and seemingly unwieldy, but the thematic arc is simple and direct. Violence begets revenge begets revenge begets revenge, begets revenge, ad infinitum. Debut filmmaker Julie Taymor (director of Broadway's much-revered and astoundingly successful The Lion King), rounds out this simplicity with a mindboggling display of visual extravagance that is only exceeded by the extravagance of Shakespeare's non-stop carnage. Linking these events in Ancient Rome to modern times with a variety of devices, Taymor is determined to keep her audience awake and to remind them that this is more a story about the human condition than about a long-dead society in Rome.

Titus begins with a small boy staging some carnage of his own with some toys on a kitchen table. As his violent fantasy escalates, a bomb goes off outside, and he's swept away by a strange man who transports him to the Roman Colosseum, where Titus Andronicus is returning from military victory against the Goths. It's an elaborate narrative device with a simple point to establish: the will to mayhem resides in our nature. Forced to bear witness to (and later become a part of) an extreme manifestation of his instincts, the boy is a stand-in for us. Like many of the flourishes in this film, the use of the boy is effective on one level and a mite too precious on another. It makes its point, but draws too much attention to itself as artifice intended to make a point. It's a conundrum, because it--like several of Taymor's choices--makes the film entertaining and easily comprehendable, while simultaneously derailing it by constantly reminding the audience that there's a director hard at work. If I sound Iike I'm contradicting myself, that's because I am. But it's true! It's difficult to imagine enjoying this material without her efforts, but the pervasive sense of effort being expended underlines the artifice in a way that is less effective on a film screen than it is on a stage. Taymor's visual imagination in terms of production design is remarkable, but her use of the camera is often annoyingly self-conscious, staging shots with angles or movements that add nothing to the point or mood of the scene, but do announce that there's a director shooting it. For all of the cleverness on display in several realms, you can tell she's a novice filmmaker. Still, a lot of Titus works, and Taymor is also responsible for many of its successes.Anthony Hopkins as Titus

The story is a bit of a tough sell on its surface, because it's such a one-note affair. When Titus (Anthony Hopkins) returns victorious, he has prisoners in tow... Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Jessica Lange), and her three sons. Despite Tamora's pleas for mercy, Titus insists on honoring Roman tradition by making a ritual sacrifice to the Gods. He orders the execution and evisceration of her eldest son, a dispassionate act of violence that sets the stage for a relentless cycle of passionate revenge amongst the characters. In addition to the outraged Tamora, there are her two remaining sons, Chiron (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys), a pair of punkish brats whose blood-lust is in service of atrociously juvenile "fun". Titus' family consists of his brother Marcus, a level-headed and loyal sibling who holds the position of Tribune. Titus has a beautiful daughter named Lavinia (Laura Fraser), who is betrothed to the Emperor's younger son, Bassianus (James Frain). In addition, he has four remaining sons out of twenty-five, the other twenty-one having died in battle over the years.

Shortly after Titus' return, the Emperor dies, leaving a power vacuum in Rome. Though the citizens urge Titus to take up the mantle of political leader and become Emperor himself, he (again) bows to tradition and throws his support to the Emperor's eldest son, Saturninus (Alan Cumming), a preening, impulsive megalomaniac who immediately takes revenge on his brother's bid for power by declaring Lavinia to be his intended. Repulsed by this notion, she (aided by her brothers) flees with Bassainus. Titus is horrified by his childrens' contempt for authority and tradition, and kills one son for having shamed the family name. The remaining children urge him to see reason and to be loyal to his own family, but he clings instead to his belief in a higher form of honor. In the meantime, Saturninus frees Tamora and her sons, choosing her to be his bride in lieu of the rebellious Lavinia. This act enables Tamora's vengeance against Titus, which she sets about exacting almost immediately.Jessica Lange as Tamora

What follows is a succession of treacheries that beget counter-treacheries, until--by the end--almost nobody is left standing. Despite her non-traditional visual and narrative approaches, Taymor sticks to Shakespeare's language in the dialogue, and it's not the least bit inaccessible. This is partly due to the simplicity of the proceedings, but mostly due to the excellent performances from most of the cast. Hopkins is terrific as Titus, particularly in conveying the black comedy at the heart of the tale. He's stiff and formal at the start (as is fitting with his character), but loosens up and lets fly when Titus comes unravelled by the losses he endures. Lange is amusingly arch as Tamora, though perhaps a bit too much so. She engenders sympathy at the start with her pleas for mercy, but soon tosses authentic humanity aside in favor of an entertainingly cartoonish villany. By the end, you revile her so thoroughly that you forget that Titus started the whole thing in the first place. And that's a bit of a shame, because one of the more interesting things about the play is the way that "official" acts of violence are only impersonal to the guy doing his job, and that it's the very personal nature of a victim's loss that often gives birth to an endless cycle of vengeance. Tamora earns our own lust for payback, but it would be nice if we carried a little guilt about feeling that way. Lange makes her so outrageously despicable that we don't, which subverts one element of the thematic intent.

Equally cartoony is Alan Cumming's portrayal of Saturninus, which turns out to be an oddly ineffective bit of overt comic relief. Cumming has so much charisma that he simply cannot bore you. But this character's intentionally humorous presence is not half as amusing as the more subtly dark humor that bubbles up among the more straighforwardly tragic characters. In a movie with this many lurid plot twists, less turns out to be more. The standout performance belongs to Harry Lennix, who plays Aaron, a Moor in service (both literally and figuratively) to Tamora. Seething with contempt for everyone and everything, he facilitates most of the evil perpetrated on Titus, aiding Tamora's machinations and manipulating her repulsive progeny into heinous acts that they're eager to employ. Lennix is dazzlingly, quietly venal... stealing every scene he inhabits, and making me wonder where the heck he's been until now. In an odd bit of release-date irony, Aaron is the sort of fueled-by-indignant-rage sociopath that Highsmith's Tom Ripley was, but Minghella's Tom Ripley is not. Utterly cold and self-serving, he delights in the suffering that he brings to the world, and the panache with which he inflicts that suffering from behind the scenes. This is--or ought to be--a star-making performance.Harry Lennix and Angus MacFadyen

Taymor gets the most important things right. She moves the story along in a way that keeps it compelling and entertaining. She makes her points about human nature and the snowball effect of violence. And she brings a measure of vivid dignity to what is purportedly Shakespeare's least-admired play. On the other hand, her in-your-face conceits often fall a little flat. The side-by-side anachronisms reinforce her themes and give us something jarring to look at (such as men with Pretorian Guard helmets next to men in fedoras), but they're just too much in the long run, and too seemingly self-congratulatory for their actual degree of cleverness. The same goes for some of her avant-garde sequences, which sometimes seem to imply that she thinks we're probably not "getting it" from the play itself. But we are. The irony is, she should have had more faith in the effectiveness of her own basic storytelling skills, which are not as much in need of urgent assistance as she fears. There are occasional moments of perfection, however, and Taymor should be lauded for them. Her vision of the maimed and sexually-brutalized Lavinia tied to a tree is devastatingly powerful, conveying the full force of the horrors she's endured without ever having shown the acts themselves. In this scene and a handful of others, Taymor's genius for evocation is on full display.

Though unlikey to have much appeal to mainstream audiences, Titus is an uneven piece that succeeds in more ways than it fails. There's plenty of eye-candy (courtesy of Dante Ferretti's production design and Milena Canonero's costumes). The acting is engaging and fun to watch. And the single-mindedness of the play itself is sort of fascinating. If Taymor can learn a little more about the dynamics of big screen language (particularly the need for occasional restraint and the importance of rhythm and tone), she has the potential to become a very interesting filmmaker. As it stands, this is an honorable debut, and a more than decent viewing experience for those with a tolerance for bloodletting and an interest in wildly (if a bit too wildly) ambitious cinema.

Review © January 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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