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FILM REVIEW HHH1/2

Titus

The Play’s the Thing

By Vladimir Zelevinsky
ASSOCIATE ARTS EDITOR

Written and directed by Julie Taymor, based on the play Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

With Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, Laura Fraser, Harry J. Lennix, Angus MacFadyen, Matthew Rhys, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Osheen Jones

It is inherently disappointing to watch a production of one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays: Either the production will not be as good as the material deserves -- or the production will be so good that the weakest part will be the source material. Titus is squarely in the second category -- just about everything about it falls somewhere between inspired and brilliant, and the only thing that is merely good is the play Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first -- and bloodiest -- tragedy.

Titus Andronicus is pulp fiction, having the same time-tested structure as, say, most Hollywood action films. For the first two-thirds of the movie, the hero is being hurt by his enemies in various ways, and in the last section, he manages to gain an upper hand and exact his revenge. The hero (perhaps anti-hero) here is Titus (Anthony Hopkins), having just returned victorious from the war with the Goths. The enemies here are his prisoners of war: the queen of Goths Tamora (Jessica Lange), and a brooding Moor Aaron (Harry J. Lennix). The bulk of the play is a vicious circle of revenge, with bodies hacked to pieces and rivers of blood flowing.

Director Julie Taymor (best known for directing The Lion King on Broadway) first and foremost makes sure Titus is impressive visually; and the word impressive here is a massive understatement. These are images you won’t see anywhere else, the ones that pounce and grab, the ones that are likely to be forever burned into your retina. Some moments are truly indelible: the unexpected cut to the ruins of the Coliseum in the opening; the march of Roman soldiers, their bodies and faces covered with gray dust; or the shot of emperor Saturninus (Alan Cumming), beatifically smiling under a horrific iron sculpture of a rabid dog.

But Titus is more than merely a visual tour-de-force. On the basic level, it is simply a very well directed Shakespearean play, with every dramatic moment lucid and powerful, with visuals complementing -- but not overpowering -- characters, whose motivations and personalities remain human, even when they are performing all these heinous acts. Shockingly, and most certainly intentionally, the more these characters maim each other, the more human they become (witness Aaron’s monologue when he expects to be hanged; only when he vents his deep-rooted fury do we understand precisely what makes him what he is).

Speaking of characters, I’m firmly convinced that Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus with Anthony Hopkins in mind. I can’t imagine anyone else taking this part and making the character’s journey as riveting; it also helps to know Hopkins’ certain other famous performance (it’s referred to during the climax). Jessica Lange is almost on the verge of camp and vamp for most of her screen time, but she has such a forceful opening (when she pleads with Titus for the life of her eldest son), that this scene -- as well as its implications -- reverberates throughout the whole narrative. Alan Cumming goes far beyond the usual amount of camp. His emperor Saturninus looks like Hitler played by Pee-Wee Herman. Supporting players, especially Colm Feore (who played the title character in Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould) and Laura Fraser, are top-notch as well.

As a result, from the narrative point of view, Titus is irresistible. It tells a gripping story in three hours, and it is so well-paced it feels like twenty minutes. It also avoids de-sensitizing the audience; each shocking moment somehow manages to top the previous one. The carnage also grows funnier and funnier as we go along. By the time the gory finale rolls along, we are in the full Grand Guignol mode, stomach-churning and utterly hilarious at the same time.

There’s only one minor problem with the film when it unfolds -- some of it is a bit on the obvious side. A couple of the elaborate visual set-ups are followed with slightly underwhelming payoffs (like the otherwise graceful final shot); and the sequence that first shows Tamora’s children in their lair is also belaboring an obvious point. Yes, we know these people are Goth, so there’s no need for hard rock on the soundtrack.

However, one fault with Titus -- wholly stemming from the play -- is that it’s not really about anything (compare it with, for example, a recent film version of Richard III. The emptiness at the heart of this film is admirably covered up with an inordinate amount of style: Even the time is out of joint: The movie superposes ancient Rome, the 1930s, and the present (creating a dazzling contrast between the Roman aqueducts and Mussolini’s government buildings). Taymor even uses a double framing device (the main action is framed as a play, performed in the Coliseum, which is, in turn, framed as a little boy’s violent fantasy -- the same little boy who plays with his action figures in the opening shot). But, story-wise, however enjoyable it is (if one can use the word enjoyable with a straight face when applied to such a story), there’s little in the way of meaning.

But ultimately, and surprisingly, this matters little. Titus succeeds in creating its own world and forcefully pulling us into it, completely, with no ripples on the surface. However I might intellectually wish for a point to Titus, I am fully aware that I will very likely never forget most of its images. When I recall Titus gleefully licking his lips in the finale, or that slow zooming shot of his daughter Lavinia standing all alone on a tree stump, I can’t help but shiver.