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October 1, 2008 |

By TK Burton | | October 1, 2008 |

Titus, Julie Taymor’s big-screen debut, is a deliriously wild, visually assaulting mess of a movie. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s at times garish, disturbing, shocking, and sometimes just flat-out gross. It’s also one of the most beautiful pictures I’ve seen. The cinematic re-telling of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” is an explosion of light and sound and blood; part musical, part tragedy, part horror show. “Titus Andronicus” is renowned as one of the Bard’s goriest, bloodiest play (so much so that some doubt his authorship), and matching it with Taymor (who directed, produced, and wrote the screenplay), at the time probably most well-known for directing the Broadway musical version of The Lion King, seemed an unlikely pairing to say the least. Yet she managed to somehow take the gore and brutality of the play, match it with her gift for choreography and vivid production design, and create a unique film that both Shakespeare and film buffs alike should see.

For those unfamiliar with the story, and I don’t blame you if you’re not — it’s one of Shakespeare’s earlier and less well known plays — Titus takes place shortly after the death of Rome’s emperor. The emporer’s brother, Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins), is returning from war with the Goths. He arrives, triumphant, with the Queen of the Goths, Tamora (Jessica Lange) and her sons Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) in chains, as well as Aaron the Moor (Harry Lennix), Tamora’s secret lover. A third son, Alarbus, is also captured, but Titus promptly sacrifices and guts him (in front of his family, no less), deaf to the desperate and tearful begging of Tamora. Titus is offered the throne, but refuses, and instead the emporer’s eldest son, Saturninus (Alan Cumming) takes up the crown. In somewhat incestuous fashion, Saturninus and Titus agree that he will marry Titus’ daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser), but she rebuffs him because she’s betrothed to Bassianus (James Frain), enraging her father. Saturninus instead, in a perceived shrewd political maneuver, takes the scheming, vengeful Tamora as his bride. By setting her and her family free, and by becoming smitten with her sensuous charm, he inadvertently sets into motion a series of brutal, gruesome events, leading into a tale of murder, rape, torture, cannibalism, and other delightful family values.

It’s nasty stuff, the events of Titus, executed with a style and flair that’s rather incongruous with the subject matter. Similar to Richard Loncraine’s 1995 iteration of “Richard III”, 1999’s Titus uses modern artifices to refresh and add new dimension to Shakespeare’s tale. The costumes and sets vary wildly in tone and fashion, integrating different time periods and themes into one bizarre, eye-popping pastiche. At times it’s a little jarring, especially when coupled with Taymor’s odd variety of music that ranges from Wagnerian orchestral pieces to more contemporary, techno-inspired tracks. Yet one can’t help but applaud her audacity. It’s one thing to update Shakespeare — that’s not necessarily new. It’s another thing to completely turn it on its head and spin it around.

Amidst all of this colorful and vivid imagery is a story that is equal parts riveting and horrifying. It’s not that it’s scary — it’s that Titus is truly a twisted tale, full of fierce and cruel savagery, human debasement and insidious scheming. It takes the concepts of revenge and deceit to places I’ve rarely encountered. If there is an infamous scene (and fair warning, I’m going to drop some spoilers here), it’s easily the rape of Lavinia. Tamora, in a seething fury over the murder of her sons, encounters Lavinia and Bassianus in the woods during a hunting trip. Her sons murder Bassianus and are debating the idea of raping Lavinia, a plan that Tamora doesn’t just allow, but that she encourages. In one of the most heart wrenching, terrible moments, Lavinia falls to her knees, clutching desperately at Tamora’s skirts, begging for her to, as a woman, take pity on her… only for Tamora, with an ice-cold smile and glowering eyes, to beckon for her sons, who carry Lavinia off to untold torments. Thankfully, the rape itself isn’t shown… but the aftermath is. That part I won’t spoil, but what is done to her beyond the rape itself presents a haunting, disturbing image that will undoubtedly stay with you.

On top of the murder and dismemberments that you see, there is enough deceit, vengeance and venality to make you never want to leave the house. There is a simmering, festering undercurrent of rage throughout the film; each character has a seemingly mortal grudge that requires not just vengeance or punishment, but vicious, dehumanizing retribution. There has certainly been a fair share of schemers and villains in Shakespearean tales, but rarely, if ever, have there been any like this. In theory, I suppose Titus is supposed to be the protagonist, but given that he set the events in motion by killing Tamora’s son in front of her, it’s difficult for him to cut too sympathetic a figure. At the same time, though Tamora’s fury is a righteous one, and her thirst for “justice” is certainly understandable… the steps she, Aaron and her sons go through are not just justice, but a war waged on the humanity of their enemies. Chiron and Demetrius are played as drunken, feral wildlings — crazed and impulse-driven and without conscience. For them, the rape of Lavinia isn’t even a strike back at Titus — one gets the impression they would have done it anyway, simply because they couldn’t have her in the first place. However Tamora and Aaron are forces of nature, determined to devastate everything in their path; Aaron even goes so far as to admit, “If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.” Not only do they instigate the rape and torture of Titus’ daughter, they frame his sons for Bassianus’ death, then, through further deception, persuade Titus to disfigure himself in an effort to save them. Titus, however, is not without his own machinations and taste for the exotic reparations, and all of this leads up to a wickedly deranged climax that practically leaves the viewer breathless, not to mention mildly revolted.

It’s hard to give an adequate description of Titus and still make it sound appealing — much of the blame for that lies on the shoulders of Shakespeare, not Ms. Taymor. Despite all of the gore and brutality that pervade the film, Titus is unquestionably one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen. Taymor, clearly showing her Broadway roots, embues the film with a rhythm and flow that makes all of these events move together in a dance-like motion. She gives her influences away in the very first scene, whereupon Titus and his soldiers thunder their way back into Rome, in a highly stylized, splendidly choreographed set of movements — dancing, stomping, marching and spinning weapons and shields in cadenced unison. The combination of music, imagery, costumes and choreography all combine into a remarkable and compelling rendition of the play. Similar to Across the Universe, Taymor took a concept and tossed it into a blender mixed with her own unique creative flair, and managed to come up with something wholly unique, engaging, and yes, even lovely. For every stark, austere backdrop, there is a bright, colorful counterpart. The grim scene of Lavinia, lingering wraithlike and despairing in the marshlands, is just as beautiful (albeit in a far more depraved fashion) as the opulent bacchanal that is Saturninus and Tamora’s wedding reception. Replete with dancers and musicians, massive trays of fruit and meats floating across pools of crystal water in the middle of a room of glamorous and brightly dressed celebrants, it presents a scene of near-orgiastic festivities.

A film is successful if you have three things: good writing (check), good production/direction (check), and good acting. Though Taymor was remarkably inexperienced with film direction, she was able to gather an incredible cast together. In addition to those already listed, the film also stars Colm Feore (you are forgiven for the WarGames sequel, Colm) as Marcus Andronicus, brother of Titus; Angus Macfadyen as Lucius, yet another of Titus’ sons who is banished for trying to free his brothers and ultimately plays a part in unraveling many of the film’s intrigues. The supporting cast members are all wonderful in their own right. Cumming in particular is excellent — while I’ve always felt that one of his weakness as a film actor is that he simply seems to be playing Alan Cumming, and he is somewhat guilty of that here, his portrayal of Saturninus as a petulant, malevolent king is great. While all of the characters play a part in setting the story’s events into motion, much of his responsibility for it is born sheerly out of his own ignorant scheming. Cumming successfully plays him as an ambitious, power-hungry, intellectually challenged buffoon. Rhys Meyers and Rhys, as Charon and Demetrius respectively, clearly revel in their roles as the sadistic monkeyboys, leaping and prancing and humping their way through the movie while their eyes flash with a base and terrible lust. Feore’s role is a smaller, but important one, and his emotional resonance (particularly upon his finding Lavinia) is powerful.

But it’s Lange’s and Hopkins’ movie, without a doubt. Hopkins’ portrayal of Titus is spectacular, and clearly inspired by some of the great Shakespearean cinematic portrayals. Shoulders set and gazing directly at the camera in parts, he conveys a feeling of weary noblesse oblige as he wades through each successive tragedy. His delivery is clearly channeling Olivier, but it smacks more of homage than thievery. Of course, it’s aided by the realization that Olivier never saw a set as consumed by total bedlam as this. It’s a truly impressive feat to play the only real subdued performance in such a chaotic atmosphere and not be diminished by it. Lange, on the other hand, is a steely, rage-filled Fury. She starts the film out as a brave, sympathetic mother, anguished over the death of her son. As we delve deeper, we can see how that event stains her soul, leading her to become the dispenser of barbarity and to revel in the madness that she creates around her. What’s so compelling is how she threw herself into the role, flaunting knee-knocking sex appeal in gold lamé and face paint, her “why don’t you have a bite of this apple” smile casting portents of doom with every wicked glance. It’s a performance that’s miles away from the rest of her already-amazing resume.

It’s rare that you see a film quite like Titus. It’s gorgeously shot, with stunning scenery and detailed, extravagant costumes, moving easily between decrepit stone buildings, lush forests, lavish palaces and decayed, gloomy marshes. Combining the artistry and choreography of a musical with astonishing visuals and varied music choices, it’s unquestionably a feast for the eyes. Yet it’s a grim, dark work, full of nastiness and avarice and viperish plots of revenge designed not just to redress wrongs, but also to destroy and dehumanize. For those whose stomachs turn at such things, all I can say is — embrace it. It’s not torture-porn level gross or disturbing — most of the truly terrible things happen off-screen. Instead, it glories in its madness, creating a unique, bizarre, and riveting picture that must be seen to be fully appreciated — or reviled. It’s not for everyone. It’s certainly not something you may want to see twice. But, for the love of the Bard, just see it.

TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination at Uncooked Meat.

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Titus / TK

October 1, 2008 |

TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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