Titus (1999)

Director/Screenwriter: Julie Taymor

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By Roderick Heath

Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus is one of his earliest works and, as its reputation well confirms, a shaky effort by a great talent. The training wheels were still squeaking badly: the characterisations lack the rock-steady motivation and complexity of his great works, the dialogue is fine but rather more drab and to the point than old Bill at full poetic flight, and the plot has some gaping foolishness. The young poet, taking refuge on the stage after his sonneteering patronage dried up, stacked on stage gimmicks, grotesquery, and madly proliferating plots and ideas in a fashion that borders on what we’d now call black comedy. It was also the biggest success of his career and helped give birth to Jacobean drama. The play also contains interesting sketches for almost all of his later works of note, from Richard III to Othello to Coriolanus. To this day, its gothic excesses–a doe-like daughter raped as a precursor to having her tongue and hands cut away, two sons slaughtered and fed to their mother in pastries, a supervillain who stabs a nurse in the stomach whilst gleefully mocking her cries as the squeals of a pig–exceed even the warped imagination of the average torture-horror director.

Julie Taymor, who since her debut with this film has made the excellent Frida (2002) and the popular Across the Universe (2007), came to movie-making with all the freakish pomp of a theatre monarch advancing to conquer a new world. If Frida worked because the artist-subject’s oeuvre provided a ready-made template for Taymor’s visual compositions and narrative discursions, Titus is an excruciating disaster in large part because she takes the play’s weaknesses as an excuse to indulge her own shapeless conceptualism. The resulting film resembles a performing arts school project run amok, as Taymor’s approach is a mish-mash of other people’s approaches: Richard Loncraine’s 1930s flourishes in Richard III (1995); Peter Greenaway-esque animated visual inserts and avant-gardish wankerdom; the hyper-stylised modernist chic of Peter Brook seen in the Roman legions; Wellesian employment of architecture; Baz Luhrmann-derived Oz-punk loudness in the portrayals of villains Chiron (Jonathan Rhys-Meyer) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys); and sprawling decadence by way of Tinto Brass and an 1980s Park Avenue coke orgy.

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The story is, at least, still generally coherent. Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) returns to Rome from a victorious war against the Goths with Tamora (Jessica Lange) and her three sons, Alarbus (Raz Degan), Chiron, and Demetrius, as captives. Titus has lost 21 sons in the war, so he lets the survivors, Lucius (Angus Macfadyen, sporting excessive pomade), Quintus (Kenny Doughty), Mutius (Blake Ritson), and Martius (Colin Wells), sacrifice Alarbus. The reigning emperor has just died, so his sons Saturninus (Alan Cumming) and Bassianus (James Frain) compete for election. As a mark of respect, proposed by Titus’ brother Marcus (Colm Feore), Titus is also offered a chance at the throne by the Senate, but he puts his backing behind Saturninus as the proper heir and throws his daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser) into the bargain. But Lavinia’s in love with Bassianus, and her brothers help her run off with him in defiance of daddy. Titus, in a rage, stabs Mutius when he tries to hold Titus from pursuit. Saturninus, stung by his rejection, marries the wily Tamora and acquiesces to her plans for ruthless revenge on the Andronicii. This soon comes to pass as they have Martius and Quintus set up for Bassianus’ murder by Tamora’s Moorish henchman and lover Aaron (embodied with high style by Harry Lennix), and Lavinia left terribly mutilated by Chiron and Demetrius. After some down time to think and dither until the fifth act rolls around, Titus plans his own revenge.

Taymor begins with a clodhopping point–a boy playing with his action figures is transported into the midst of a tale that analyses the true, self-replicating, morally corrosive nature of honour crimes. She then proceeds to suck from the film any real moral resonance, however, with relentless cartoonishness. Lavinia’s hideous fate is presented with a blackly witty idea–her rapists strand her atop a tree stump where she releases bloody, silent screams with tied twigs where her hands were, as a dark twist on the line “made her body bare of thy two branches,” uttered by Marcus when he finds her. But the CGI effects are clumsy, and the sequence has no impact because it’s robbed of all corporeal quality–it’s just another fancy visual effect. A later scene, in which Tamora and sons try to provoke Titus to madness by pretending to be incarnations of Revenge and consorts Rapine and Murder, was pretty dumb in the play too, but here’s it an absurd lysergic vision out of an arty music video.

Shakespeare’s tragedies are, by and large, about how violations of social codes take on a terrible velocity, laying everything waste until the violation’s results are played out. His fecundity of imagination and characterisation always strained, and usually ignored, the rules of classical drama, but he obeyed their principles in this regard; indeed, he took this cause and effect of social disintegration to new heights of disturbing political cynicism in the Elizabethan world with its very early intimations of both imperialism and multiculturalism. Without a feel for the social element, any adaptation is doomed to misunderstand him. That Taymor is under the spell of the mantra that his plays have to be jazzed up to appeal is not so problematic as the lack of a decisive presentation. Loncraine’s Richard had thunderous impact precisely because it pursued its historical analogy with stylistic rigour and a melodramatic delight in the story at hand.

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As the story demands a modicum of focus, the film settles down for a patch in the middle: for all the play’s faults, it has an inexorable drive that pushes the film along here, particularly when Aaron the Moor is on screen. A clear precursor of such disparate Shakespearean characters as Richard Gloucester, Iago, Shylock, and Othello, Aaron is a dramatic engine, the relentlessly unsentimental, cultural outsider flaying the values of that culture with fearless bravado even as he meets his comeuppance. Lennix struts through the film as if he owns it, and with good reason: he’s the only actor, as well as character, with the guts to admit it’s all a joke. But just when the actors find an island where they can work their craft properly, Taymor throws in a showy sequence of Titus being is presented with his sons’ heads by an Italian circus clown.

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Taymor’s film is more intent upon examining its own theatre-queen fabulousness. The flourishes are often clever, but never escape the status of gimmickry. Take the sequence in which candidates for the Imperial throne appeal to the people. Saturninus (a performance of über-camp spectacle from Alan Cumming) is backed by the bullyboys of Berlin circa 1933, whereas brother Bassianus (James Frain) has the trappings of 1950s America; their followers wave the flags of two different contemporary Roman football clubs. The clash of symbolism and intellectual intent with these grab-bag touches (Is this serious analogy of political styles? Jokey send-up of clannish loyalty?) is actually a kind of opportunism. It has nothing much to do with either the story at hand, nor with the populist elements of both fascism and American democracy: it’s merely a pseudo-intellectual shorthand.

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Despite the champion’s league cast, the acting styles seem snatched from as many corners of the earth as the set decoration. Cummings’ hyped-up showiness suggests Jay Robinson by way of his Cabaret emcee, clash madly with the gravitas of Hopkins who, for once, is the one trying to bring something like intensive emotional modulation to someone else’s showing off. He’s too often left floundering in the mess. He can’t be the tragic hero at the centre of the drama if the drama is deflated. He’s finally outshone by the simpler, more effective characterisations of a bracingly calm Colm Feore as Titus’ brother Marcus and Laura Fraser, who has a straight Old Vic accent as Lavinia, but rather subversively presented as a faintly racist, self-impressed princess fit for a bit’a the old ultra-violence at the hands of Tamora’s droogs. Jessica Lange, with all her ripe maturity, seems primed to steal the film as Tamora, but the film seems almost embarrassed by her campy ferocity, backing away at any opportunity. One moment that’s both fiendish and fudged finds Lange lying on a couch bare-breasted in an orgiastic embrace with both husband Saturninus and one of her sons, but it’s also cuts away so quickly it’s hardly registered. Taymor keeps her centre-frame provocations relentlessly ineffectual, replete with gaudy homoerotica, bouncing bums, and digitised boobs.

O, this offence is rank. l

  • Maja Gille spoke:
    5th/11/2010 to 1:12 am

    one of my favourites… its too much

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