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With: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Angus Macfadyen
Written by: Julie Taymor, based on Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Julie Taymor
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 162
Date: 12/25/1999

Titus (1999)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Brushing Up Shakespeare

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Since the beginning of the movies filmmakers have been struggling to bring William Shakespeare to the screen. The Internet Movie Database lists nearly 400 movies of Shakespeare's plays, almost a hundred of them made before the advent of sound! The two factions are the respectful adaptations (Laurence Olivier's Henry V and Hamlet) versus the defiant and imaginative adaptations (Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight and Michael Hoffman's A Midsummer Night's Dream).

Written and directed by Julie Taymor, and based on Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, Titus is a combination of the best of both worlds. It's a huge, seemingly important work, but it takes a cue from Welles or Kenneth Branagh and adds a wicked grin to the proceedings. The plot is quite complex, as nearly every character tries to deceive every other character in some way. As simply as possible, Anthony Hopkins stars as Titus Andronicus, a general who has recently returned from the crusades against the Goths. He has brought back with him four Goth prisoners; Tamora, the Goth Queen (Jessica Lange), her illicit lover, the evil and slippery Aaron the Moor (Harry Lennix), and Tamora's two squealing frat-boy sons (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Raz Degan). Through a misjudgment on the part of Titus (not his last), Tamora finds herself empress of Rome alongside emperor Saturninus (Alan Cumming), and from her new perch of power vows secret revenge upon Rome and everyone in it.

Director Taymor, who helmed the mighty Broadway productions of The Lion King and Titus Andronicus, has an eye for hugeness, color, staging, and motion. Taymor takes all her cues from the play and includes all the graphic violence that Shakespeare originally dreamed up for his characters. Lavinia has her hands and tongue cut off by Tamora's vengeful sons, and twigs and branches stuck into her empty wrist sockets. Titus cuts off his own hand because he thinks it will save his two sons. There's a scene in which Titus' hand (and his two sons' heads) are delivered back to him and Taymor puts the gory items inside a sort of musical circus wagon, complete with a little girl who puts out chairs for the lucky spectators. The whole movie is this unhinged and imaginative. Not to mention the bloodbath of a climax in which, among other things, Titus cuts Tamora's sons' throats, drains their blood, and bakes it into a pie, which he serves to the emperor and empress.

Taymor's achievement is doubled when one realizes that Titus Andronicus is not really one of Shakespeare's more well-regarded plays. Indeed, Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare's more clueless characters. He continually makes the wrong decisions, allows himself to be duped, kills his own son, and does not seem to mourn a whit for his "20 sons" killed in battle. On the other hand, Titus contains one of Shakespeare's most vicious villains, Aaron the Moor. He's so nasty that from atop the gallows he delivers a hair-raising speech of such evil and horror that even the foul Iago would quiver in fright. The play was written early in Shakespeare's career, and it relies heavily on exploitation elements. But so does the cinema, which makes Titus a worthy film.

The press notes and certain other reviews I've read try to ascertain how and why Titus is a "relevant" film for our times, which is ridiculous. Any great work of art is always timeless and always timely. Taymor inserts a fascinating prologue and epilogue in her movie, which, without giving anything away, seem to be saying the same thing that Saving Private Ryan tried to say: "war is bad." But Titus says it more effectively. There are no heroes here and no one to look up to. We get the message, spelled out in bloody red.

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