Titus opens with a scene of a young boy sitting in a kitchen and wearing a paper bag on
his head, with holes poked for his eyes and mouth. The boy appears to be eating a meal while
attempting to play with all of his toys at the same time. Most of the toys are dolls, and many are
electronic--the setting is apparently a modern one. The boy begins to play rather violently. He
throws the toys around, slams them into his food, cuts off their heads, breaks dishes. Suddenly
his small violence is interrupted by a larger, more threatening one--there is an explosion, the
room shakes, the boy falls to the floor. A man appears wearing a strange uniform. He tears the
paper bag from the boy's head and carries him out of the burning house. They exit into an
enormous stone arena, and all at once we are in Rome of the distant past.
The rest of the film is in many ways a repetition of this opening scene. There is the same
surreality, the same strange mix of the humorous and the disturbing, the ancient and the modern.
And, just as the boy treats his dolls, so are men and women treated--they are thrown about and
hacked to pieces as if they were the playthings of a violent, thoughtless child (and, indeed, one of
the boy's dolls bears an uncanny resemblance to the title character, who bears the brunt of the
majority of the tragic events in this story).
This is Titus, a film adaptation of an early, rarely-performed Shakespeare play called
Titus Andronicus. The play is not produced or read very often partly because most critics think it
is one of the Bard's lesser works, and partly because the subject matter is so, well,
unproduceable. It's the story of the Roman general Titus Andronicus (Sir Anthony Hopkins, in a
performance that is both subtle and over-the-top in all the right ways) who, as the story begins, is
returning, victorious, to Rome from a great battle against the Goths. He immediately makes two
huge mistake for which he will be punished for the rest of his life. The first is, he does not show
mercy to his prisoners. Queen Tamora of the Goths (Jessica Lange) begs for the life of her
oldest son, but Titus will not be moved--he sees it as his duty to sacrifice the boy to the Gods.
Tamora and her sons, Chiron (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys), swear
Titus's second mistake is that, when he is offered the Emperorship, he declines it and
turns it over to Saturnine (Alan Cumming, slimy and effeminate as always). Not only is
Saturnine a thoroughly horrible and easily manipulated person, he also almost immediately
hooks up with Tamora, Titus's mortal enemy, and a masterful manipulator.
These two acts begin a chain of violence, rape, murder and mutilation the likes of which
even Shakespeare himself never exceeded. Titus starts it off by killing one of his own sons, in an
act of loyalty toward Rome. Next, Lavinia (Laura Fraser), Titus's beautiful daughter, is raped by
Tamora's sons, who chop off her hands and her tongue so she cannot tell anyone who violated
her. Then Bassianus (James Frain), Lavinia's husband, is killed, and two more of Titus's sons
are executed for his murder, though they are innocent. Titus cuts his own hand off in the
mistaken belief that this sacrifice will save his sons. And finally, Titus captures and kills
Tamora's two sons, then cooks them up and serves them to their mother and her husband, whom
he subsequently kills.
That somebody had the guts to even try to make a film out of this story is stunning
enough. That that same somebody had the talent to succeed is almost unbelievable. But believe
it or not, writer/director Julie Taymor did it, and right after a Tony award-winning run as director
of the musical version of The Lion King. Maybe she was testing her range. If so, she passed the
test. I'm not sure if she did it with flying colors, but Titus is definitely a success.
The story of Titus Andronicus is obviously a totally over-the-top melodramatic tragedy,
so telling it is going to be a delicate business, involving lots of complicated questions. Do you
go whole hog and make it really serious and depressing, or do you try to add some comedy to
lighten it up? And how do you make it mean something to a contemporary audience--should
you modernize it or not?
Taymor answers yes and yes. She recognizes that the line between tragedy and comedy
is a very thin one, so instead of choosing a side of it to stay on, she erases it altogether. Rather
than avoiding the black humor inherent in the "Hey, guess who you're eating!" scene, she plays
it up. Hopkins arrives dressed as a chef and practically dances while Lange and Cumming enjoy
their man-meat pies. And instead of choosing a time period to set the events of the play in,
Taymor sets it in all time periods at once, putting motorcycles side by side with horse-drawn
chariots, and adding arcade games and swing music to Roman bacchanals.
Another line that Taymor blurs is the one between fantasy and reality. There are
numerous surreal dream sequences involving tigers and angels, fire and swords, and really fancy
costumes (viz. The Lion King). And near the end of the film, we are suddenly and inexplicably
returned to that stone arena that appeared in the first scene, and an audience materializes to
witness the epilogue, mimicking we ourselves, the audience of the film.
The film is loaded with beautiful symbolic imagery, including the Freudian kind, which
means plenty of phallic symbols and weird mother-son relationships to go around (Tamora's two
wild and crazy boys hang on their mother a little too much for [our] comfort, and she acts as a
combination mother-substitute/sex object for Emperor Saturninus). And that's one of many
recurring themes in this film--the relationship between a parent and a child and what it means
when that relationship is shattered by violence. Other themes include mercy--the giving and
withholding of it; especially the dangers that go with the latter--and the bestial way in which
men and women often treat their fellows.
Titus also has great characters and great acting. (Harry Lenix in particular stands out as
Aaron, Tamora's Moorish lover and advisor--he's a completely evil and heartless manipulator, a
kind of prototype Iago.) In fact, the film's only faults are those that are inherent in the subject
matter--at times it really does go over the top, becoming so gross that we can't watch, so
horrifying that we can't even believe it anymore, so stylistically flashy that we're overwhelmed.
But despite these flaws, Titus is still an impressive achievement from an exciting new talent.
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