Julie Taymor Delivers Shakespearean Horror on a Grand Scale
#37: Titus (1999)
Director: Julie Taymor
I watched Titus a few days before Halloween, and my timing was perfect. Shakespeare’s plays included ghosts, witches and monsters, but Titus Andronicus was the closest he ever came to pure horror. It is a revenge drama in which nearly everyone is seeking revenge against someone, and it is given in extravagant, grotesque ways; bodies piling up, characters going mad from grief and rage, until it starts to feel not just like a tragedy but like a perverse comedy. Titus Andronicus, written early in Shakespeare’s career, is almost indescribable.
So how do you adapt source material that is so over the top? Julie Taymor made just the right call: go right over the top with the play, into the madness of the story. Don’t let up. Show no mercy to the audience. When it seems things are as dark as they’re going to get, ramp it up. The result is a stunning, if disturbing, film.
Were I to explain the plot and all the major characters this would be a very long review. The catalyst for the drama, though, is one plea for mercy denied. An illustrious Roman general, Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) returns victorious from war against the Goths, having taken prisoner the Goth queen Tamora (Jessica Lange), her three sons, and a Moor, Aaron (Harry Lennix). Titus lost 21 sons on the field of battle, and demands the life of Tamora’s eldest son as retribution. She begs, pleads, weeps for the life of her son, Alarbus, but Titus is unmoved. Soon Alarbus’s entrails are being presented to Titus, and things will only go downhill from there.
So how do you adapt source material that is so over the top? Julie Taymor made just the right call: go right over the top with the play, go right into the madness of the story.
In order to avoid the horror that follows Titus should have either been more merciful, or less. Leaving this grieving mother and her remaining sons alive will have consequences: Tamora will avenge her son’s death, and then some.
Julie Taymor sets Titus in a Rome that is neither past nor present, but an otherworldly blend of time periods. There are hints of the ancient world mixed with World War 2 fascism, with a few odd touches thrown in. Tamora’s peroxide blonde sons Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Demitrius (Matthew Rhys) are punk rock at its most degenerate. The emperor, Saturninus (Alan Cumming) wears Ziggy Stardust level makeup. The visual extravagance paired with stylized but extreme violence brings Dario Argento to mind, a comparison that becomes more and more apt as the mutilations and murders pile up in increasingly bizarre ways. Consider the shot of Lavinia (Laura Fraser), standing on a stump in a desolate field, looking for all the world like a martyred saint, her hands replaced with twigs. It’s an elegant shot that descends back into horror when she opens her mouth and blood, instead of speech, pours out.
Titus has a large cast, and every performance is strong. Hopkins transforms from cold, confident, and composed general to madman with an unmistakable nod to his most famous character, Hannibal Lecter. Harry Lennix is a standout as the one character who seems motivated not by a desire for revenge, but by pure, unprecipitated malice. Aaron is the Joker, basically – a man who simply enjoys watching the world burn. Or to put it in Shakespearean terms, he’s Iago, the satanic figure, and Lennix brings great charisma to his malevolence.
I reviewed another Julie Taymor movie recently, Across the Universe, and I was underwhelmed by it. Not so with Titus. There is nothing “under” about this movie at all. I think it’s a terrific adaptation, but I give strong warning: there is an orgy scene and it’s…well, it’s an orgy. Enough said about that. Titus also contains a good deal of violence, some of it more disturbing for what’s implied than what is actually shown. Titus Andronicus is considered one of Shakespeare’s lesser plays, but make no mistake: “lesser” Shakespeare could still write a better script than almost anyone in human history. This script, delivered with Taymor’s sometimes gorgeous, sometimes assaultive visuals, makes for an unforgettable cinematic experience.