Ahhhhh! It’s amazing how enjoyable Shakespeare can be when Kenneth Branagh isn’t involved. Julie Taymor made her reputation with stage versions of “The Lion King” and “Titus Andronicus”. For her film debut, she’s chosen this, possibly the least produced work of Shakespeare. Written early in his career, “Titus” may be a little light in all of the character stuff and speeches that actors drool over, but what it does have is ACTION! There’s rape, revenge, and loads of DEATH. In Taymor’s hands, we also have the first adaptation that’s psychedelic-friendly (okay, there’s “Prospero’s Books”, but you can actually follow this film).
For the first ten minutes, there isn’t even any dialogue. Though set in ancient Rome, the director creates a world which contains elements and anachronisms of different parts of the 20th century. We see the great general Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) return victorious from a long war with the Goths where Titus lost all but four of his 21 sons. The old general is a man of rigid belief in tradition and religion. As such, he does two things he’ll live to regret. First, he kills the eldest son of the captured Tamara (Jessica Lange), Queen of the Goths as a religious sacrifice in honor of his dead children. Second, after the Emperor dies, Titus turns down the throne offered to him by the people so that it may go to the Emperor’s eldest son. That would be Saturninus (Alan C*****g). The little snot first grabs for Titus’ only daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser) as his wife when she is already betrothed to the new Emperor’s younger brother, Bassinius (James Frain). Then, he settles for Tamara, who, as Emperess, wants nothing more than revenge on Titus for killing her son. With the aid of her two vile children (Jonathan Rhys-Myers, Matthew Rhys) and her secret Moor lover (Harry Lennix), she embarks on a cruel and vicious plan for revenge. Unfortunately for them, paybacks are a bitch.
There have been a lot of Shakespeare adaptations in the last ten years. With the upcoming Ethan Hawke version of “Hamlet” there will have been three major films of that play alone. This film is the third production to try to match original text with radical visuals. While not as extreme as Peter Greenaway’s “Prospero’s Books”, “Titus” bears far more gravity than Baz Luhrmann’s lighter “Romeo + Juliet”. This new film actually bears more resemblance to another Greenaway film, “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.”
I’ve heard a lot of carping about this film. The two big complaints are that it’s not one of Bill’s best works and that Julie Taymor is all over the place. The film is a mess, but it’s a glorious mess, and more importantly it’s an engrossing mess. After sitting through many of the season’s other “prestige” pictures, at least this one could keep me awake with more than its own self-importance (this means you, “Talented Mr. Ripley”). Too many Shakespeare adaptations are just an excuse for Hollywood actors to slum for some artistic street cred. In “Titus”, everyone looks like they’re at least having fun. What more do you want?