Theatrical wizard Julie Taymor strides boldly into the feature film arena with “Titus” and emerges with a conditional victory. Gutsily grappling with one of Shakespeare’s least performed and most gruesomely melodramatic plays, the lauded director of Broadway’s “The Lion King” makes this wild tale of a savage cycle of revenge in imperial Rome accessible and exceedingly vivid. Distinguished by some outstanding thesping and an arresting stylistic approach that successfully mixes ancient, ’30s fascist and modern motifs, pic should attract the attention of sophisticated viewers in specialized release. But despite the names involved and the surfeit of action and slaughter, “Titus” would appear too rarefied and demanding to cross over to the wider audience that has made hits of several Shakespeare adaptations in recent years.
If “Titus” fails to connect with the contemporary mass audience that Taymor implicitly links with the bloodthirsty fans of gladiatorial combat, it won’t be for lack of trying. The director’s overriding thematic concern here seems to be to make a connection between the outrageous criminal acts of Shakespeare’s powerful, privileged characters and the spectacle of lewd, violent and murderous behavior that is increasingly a part of modern life. Cinematically, the film references “The Silence of the Lambs” in the way it uses Anthony Hopkins, just as much as this early Shakespeare play foreshadows “King Lear,” among other works.
Modern link is stressed at the outset, as a boy, who is seen playing destructively with toy soldiers, is transported from the 20th century to about 400 A.D., where he is carried by gladiators into the Colosseum. A nocturnal ceremony that sees chariots mixing with modern motorcycles, tanks and trucks, marks the return to Rome of the great general Titus Andronicus (Hopkins), who has spent years in the north fighting the Goths and has triumphantly returned with a prized prisoner, their beautiful queen, Tamora (Jessica Lange).
A proud military man who has lost all but four of his 25 sons in battle, Titus insists upon enacting a religious ritual of executing one of his prisoners, and sets the bloody ball rolling by selecting Tamora’s eldest son for the sacrifice. Although her present circumstances prevent it, the enraged Tamora vows revenge, and she is soon afforded the opportunity to pursue it when she unexpectedly becomes the wife of Rome’s new emperor, the shifty and impetuous Saturninus (Alan Cumming), who is first seen riding through the streets of Rome in a flashy white T-Bird.
A family rift over Titus’ public support for the emperor leads the general to kill one of his remaining sons. With this, Tamora’s murderous plans begin taking shape. Aaron (Harry Lennix), a Moor who is the queen’s secret lover, is also something like Iago to her Lady Macbeth, an insidious, jealousy-consumed villain who engineers the murder of Saturninus’ brother Bassianus (James Frain). He then turns the latter’s wife, Lavinia (Laura Fraser), who is also Titus’ only daughter, over to Tamora’s punk sons Chiron and Demetrius (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Matthew Rhys), who rape her and leave her propped up in a wasteland sans tongue and with little twigs sticking out where her hands used to be.
Taymor pushes through all this twisted scene-setting with a muscular, confident attitude. As fanciful and occasionally lackluster as some of the inventions may be — Saturninus and Tamora’s wedding ceremony staged as a Jazz Age bacchanal feels rather rote — these are far outweighed by the constant inspirations, big and small, that begin by dazzling the viewer but gradually become part of the arresting fabric of the picture. Under Taymor’s supervision, Dante Ferretti’s sensational production design and Milena Canonero’s madly creative costume design mix with the Italian settings (including parts of Hadrian’s villa and Mussolini’s fascist government center) and some Croatian locations to give the film a strikingly harsh look.
One observes this heartwarming tale of family togetherness with a certain perverse fascination as the characters continue on their paths of deceit, butchery and, in the case of Titus, feigned madness. Aaron manages to frame two of Titus’ remaining sons for Bassianus’ murder, while the third, Lucius (Angus Macfadyen), is sent into exile. Hopkins, who is superb throughout, reaches his dramatic peak during his windswept “crossroads” scene, in which Titus’ crisis leads to resolve when he sends Lucius to organize an army of Goths to attack Rome. The aging general’s personal revenge against Tamora is, in a word, delicious, as he serves her and Saturninus a meal that would do Hannibal Lecter proud.
Given the bulky, unwieldy and somewhat complicated text, Taymor makes the action clear and easy to follow with her bold physicalization of the story and forceful direction of an astutely chosen cast.
Along with Hopkins, the standout thesp is Lennix, who socks over his interpretation of an African man seething with bitterness and hate over the racism and other injustices he has lived with his whole life. His late scenes, in particular, in which the captured Aaron attempts to save the life of the son he has fathered with Tamora, are staged and acted with rare power.
Lange, bedecked in gold braids, makeup, armor and tattoos, enthusiastically enters into the spirit of the piece with a crafty portrayal, while Cumming is the picture of a depraved emperor. Macfadyen registers with strength as the sole right-minded adult on the landscape.
Taymor’s occasional flights of fancy with special effects to represent inner states aren’t the film’s finest moments. Luciano Tovoli’s widescreen lensing is sumptuous but a tad flatter and darker than need be, while Elliot Goldenthal has supplied a supple, apt score.