"Titus Redux" - essay by Collin Kelley
© 2003 Collin Kelley
Julie Taymor's lavish first film deserves a second look
by Collin Kelley, author of Better To Travel
When the name Julie Taymor is mentioned, one immediately thinks of her Tony Award-winning blitzkrieg, The Lion King, or her critically acclaimed and multiple Oscar nominee, Frida. However, in between these two productions, Taymor filmed a lavish production of what is considered Shakespeare's worst (and bloodiest) play, Titus Andronicus. How this film slipped between the cracks is a mystery, especially since it towers over most attempts at bringing The Bard to the big screen.
For her 1999 production, Taymor shortened the title to simply Titus and rounded up a stellar cast including Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Laura Fraser. Taking a cue from Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet, Taymor opted for a mélange of period costumes and more modern conceits such as automobiles and electric power. Also like Lurhmann she decided to leave Shakespeare's dialogue intact. However, unlike Leonardo DiCaprio's simpering Romeo and Claire Danes limp Juliet, Shakespeare's words sound like the poetry they were intended to be issuing from the great Hopkins and Lange. Also gone are the camp musical moments, MTV-style hyper editing and flash over substance that Lurhmann used to attract teenagers to Romeo + Juliet. Taymor's Titus is not for the kids. It's probably not suitable viewing for some adults, unless they have an open mind.
Perhaps that's why Titus received only a limited release in America, but enjoyed praise in Europe. Not a surprise really, since Titus would not have made the cut at most Hollywood studios. The nearly three-hour running time would have been clipped, there would have been bigger stars, there would have been a pop song for heavy rotation on Total Request Live and the violence would have been trimmed for at least a PG-13 rating. While Fox/Searchlight (the more art film oriented arm of 20th Century Fox) agreed to finance the film on the strength of Anthony "Hannibal Lecter" Hopkins in the lead, the suits must have been scratching their heads when Taymor gave them the final cut. To understand a bit better, a Cliff Notes synopsis of Titus is necessary.
After defeating the Goths, Roman military legend Titus Andronicus (think Norman Schwarzkopf without the eloquence) returns victorious to Rome to find the emperor dead and that he has been named successor. While a military genius on the battlefield, Titus' political savvy is naive to say the least. He gives up the title and has to pick between the late emperors sons-Saturninus or Bassianus. He selects Saturninus, the fey, power-hungry eldest son despite the fact that Titus' daughter, the fair Lavinia, is betrothed to Bassianus. Saturninus immediately turns on Titus and frees the Goth queen Tamora and her two bratty children, Demetrius and Chiron. Tamora has vowed revenge against Titus, who murdered her eldest son as a sacrifice to the Roman gods during war time. Saturninus then tells Titus he plans to take Lavinia as his wife. Lavinia refuses to marry the new emperor, but Titus has pledged his loyalty to Saturninus and commands her to marry him. Titus' gaggle of sons (I lost count of how many there were) help Lavinia and Bassianus escape. Titus goes on a rampage, kills one of his own sons and disowns the others.
In the meantime, Saturninus decides to make Tamora his empress, giving her free reign to exact her revenge on Titus and his family for killing her son and bringing down her race. In short order, Bassianus is killed, Saturninus kills the rest of Titus's sons (save Lucius) and Tamora turns her sons loose on Lavinia who brutally rape her, cut out her tongue and cut off her hands replacing them with tree limbs. Tamora is hiding her own little secret: she's in love with a Moor named Aaron and pregnant with his child. Both Aaraon and Tamora urged the rape of Lavinia. However, when Tamora orders the black baby killed, Aaron escapes with the child only to be caught by Lucius and tortured.
Titus has slowly descended into madness and finally vows to take his revenge. He captures Tamora's sons, kills them, grinds them up and bakes them into pies. He then invites Saturninus and Tamora to a peace dinner, where in a pre-Dr. Lecter frenzy, Titus serves up the kids and delights as Tamora eats her own sons' remains. In what can only be called bad table etiquette, Titus kills Lavinia to end her suffering, stabs Tamora to death, Saturninus stabs Titus to death and Lucius then kills Saturninus. Got all that?
The film is extremely faithful to Shakespeare's text and the grandest thing is watching Hopkins and Lange tear through this film with such visceral rage. My friend Randy, a movie buff, rates Lange's performances on what he calls the "radiation scale." This is a tip of the hat to her Oscar-winning performance in Blue Sky where Lange's disturbed character believes her husband (Tommy Lee Jones) is poisoned by working on the A-bomb. In her famous meltdown scene, she screams, "Get away from me. I can feel the radiation!" Randy said Lange as Tamora is totally feeling the radiation when she screams at Titus as he murders her son, "O cruel, irreligious piety!" But it is the scene where she sends her sons off to rape Lavinia where Lange's grasp of the part is in full flower. Some critics savaged her performance, but this is Lange at her best. "Farewell, my sons: see that you make her sure. Ne'er let my heart know merry cheer indeed, Till all the Andronici be made away. Now will I hence to seek my lovely Moor, And let my spleenful sons this trull deflow'r." The words roll of her tongue like a master. She is completely Hopkins' foil.
And of course, there is Hopkins himself. A Shakespeare veteran, he inhabits Titus just as completely as he does Lecter or the stuffy butler in Remains of the Day. Hopkins and Taymor give a sly nod to Hannibal the Cannibal in the climax as Titus jaunts into the dining room dressed as a chef and practically licks his lips as Tamora chows down on the pie he made of her sons. Hopkins also has the gift of making the most repulsive characters sympathetic. You can't blame Tamora for seeking her revenge, but you wind up sympathizing with Titus despite the fact that he's at the very least a war criminal and can murder his own children in cold blood.
A special note must go to Laura Fraser's haunting portrayal of the doomed Lavinia. Tamora's sons leave her suspended from a tree, blood flowing from her mouth where they have cut out her tongue and tree limbs jutting from the stumps where her hands used to be. She is found in the forest by Titus's brother and it is one of the most devastating moments in the film. "Come, let us go, and make thy father blind; For such a sight will blind a father's eye: One hour's storm will drown the fragrant meads; What will whole months of tears thy father's eyes?"
The visual style of Titus is a feast for the eyes. From the elaborate costumes to the outdoor splendor of both ancient and modern Rome, Taymor straddles time lines and gives Saturnius' mad emperor an almost Nazi-era panache. Giant flags billow from skyscrapers, old Rolls Royces ferry Saturninus through the streets of Rome, while the dead and prisoners are carried by horse. Tamora's brilliant red riding habit in the fateful scene with Lavinia and Hopkins face smeared in battle paint is typical of the outrageous costume and make-up choices.
Taymor had a clear vision for Titus as early as 1995 when she staged a revival on Broadway. The visual brilliance of her debut film is not really a surprise seeing as how she revolutionized the use of masks and costumes in The Lion King, raising the cloying Disney epic to jaw-dropping theatre. She brought that same sense of drama to Frida, which was more restrained than Titus, but was still filled with mind-bending effects such as Kahlo's paintings coming to life. Whatever Taymor does next, her resume so far is impeccable. Titus is available on an impressive two-disc DVD set. This film is worth a second look. It has cult-classic written all over it.
Collin Kelley is an award-winning playwright, poet, and journalist. Visit his site at http://www.collinkelley.com/.
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