Sumptuously and elaborately staged, steeped in powerful symbolism and bordering on absolute brilliance, Julie Taymor's sometimes pretentious "Titus" flirts with becoming among the all-time best of Shakespeare movies -- if you can endure the stomach-turning violence.
Adapted from the Bard's "Titus Andronicus," a manifold tragedy that makes "Hamlet" look like "Ozzie and Harriet," the film stars Anthony Hopkins in the title role of a loyal Roman general returning from a victorious campaign against the Goths. It has cost him a dreadful personal price: 21 of his 24 sons were killed in battle.
He brings with him their bodies and five prisoners -- Tamora (Jessica Lange), the queen of the Goths, her sons (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Raz Degan and Matthew Rhys), and Aaron (Harry Lennix), a Moor with an evil streak as deep as the ocean -- and hands them over to the newly ensconced Emperor (a Hitler-esque Alan Cumming), who also asks for Titus' daughter in marriage as a sign of allegiance.
A fellow of monumentally bad judgment, Titus agrees over the protests of daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser), who is in love with the Emperor's brother, and this is where the tragedy really starts to kick in.
After killing one Goth prince as a desperate demonstration of his love for Rome (and still he curries no favor with the new emperor), Titus turns his sword on one of his own remaining sons for aiding Lavinia's escape with her lover. The Emperor then takes his Goth queen prisoner as his wife instead, giving her the power to see to fruition her tortured vows of terrible revenge upon the house of Andronicus.
Screenwriter and director Taymor -- the Tony-winning, micro-managing visionary behind the extravagant Broadway adaptation of Disney's "The Lion King" -- gives 110-percent in bringing this ambitious, catastrophic drama to the screen.
From the overwhelmingly choreographed opening that features columns of mud-encrusted Roman soldiers marching in slow, symphonic precision, to the inspired Dante Ferretti production design that mixes luxuriant, post-modern industrial style with the ruins of ancient Rome, she gives the movie an incredibly vivid visual signature.
From the symbolic use of a near-silent boy (Osheen Jones) who serves as an audience surrogate, to dialogue delivery so flawless and resounding that every syllable of iambic pentameter is fully understood, the picture is intellectually gripping.
Taymor adapts her background in ostentatious theater to fit this film beautifully, helping to create stunning armored, leathered and tattooed costumes (by Milena Canonero), and begetting engrossing performances of seething malice and rotting souls from the actors that inhabit these fantastic threads.
As the vile Goth queen whose vast scheme against Andronicus includes encouraging her demonic sons to rape and mutilate Lavinia, Lange is positively serpentine. It's the sexiest and most astonishingly seductive performance of her life.
Hopkins is equally ingenious portraying the weariness of an aging warrior and the precarious sanity of this man who finds himself disowned by his emperor, nursing his horribly scarred daughter, and forced to forfeit a hand to ransom his last two sons from the Goth's evil minion, Aaron (who is also her lover). He even gets to have a little wicked fun with this most grievous of roles, invoking a pinch of Hannibal Lecter as he takes his own revenge on the Goth queen through the grizzly murder of her two sons.
The ever-brilliant Cumming holds his own against these two legendary actors, relishing in his role as the arbitrary, tyrannical emperor. Taymor has deliberately placed him in a steel-and-rivets throne so large his feet dangle off the seat like a kid in his dad's recliner. And as Aaron, Lennix holds nothing back in an extraordinary personification of pure malignancy.
"Titus" certainly has its drawbacks -- not the least of which is the disturbingly graphic and intentionally over-the-top portrayal of the play's horrific bloodletting, which will certainly color the appreciation of this film for movie goers with weak constitutions. Everyone should know going in that this is one seriously ghastly play with a seemingly inappropriate, pitch black sense of humor that rears up once in a while.
Taymor also gets a mite pretentious in the last act, staging Titus' encroaching delusions as showy -- even silly -- performance art hallucinations, and employing gimmicky freeze-and-pivot camera tricks (like "The Matrix" and those Gap ads). Her artsy approach also rubbed off on a couple of her lesser players, notably Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who plays his Goth prince like a pouty glam rocker. (Let go of "Velvet Goldmine," man! It was two years ago!)
But even with my own reservations about the violence (Taymor could have toned it down) and the grandiose, supercilious nature of the last act, when the credits rolled at the end of "Titus," I still felt like watching it again -- immediately.
Run time: 162 mins
In Theaters: Friday 11th February 2000
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight
Production compaines: Clear Blue Sky Productions, Overseas FilmGroup, Urania Pictures S.r.l., NDF International, Titus Productions Ltd.
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 68%
Fresh: 51 Rotten: 24
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: Julie Taymor
Starring: Anthony Hopkins as Titus Andronicus, Jessica Lange as Tamora, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Chiron, Matthew Rhys as Demetrius, Osheen Jones as Young Lucius, Dario D'Ambrosi as Clown, Raz Degan as Alarbus, Harry Lennix as Aaron, Angus Macfadyen as Lucius, Kenny Doughty as Quintus, Blake Ritson as Mutius, Colin Wells as Martius, Ettore Geri as Priest, Alan Cumming as Saturninus, Constantine Gregory as Aemelius, James Frain as Bassianus, Colm Feore as Marcus Andronicus, Geraldine McEwan as Nurse, Laura Fraser as Lavinia, Tresy Taddei as Little Girl, Bah Souleymane as Infant, Antonio Manzini as Publius, Leonardo Treviglio as Caius, Giacomo Gonnella as Sempronius, Carlo Medici as Valentin, Emanuele Vezzoli as Goth Leader, Hermann Weisskopf as Goth Soldier (as Herman Weiskopf), Christopher Ahrens as Goth Soldier (as Cristopher Aherns), Vito Fasano as Goth General, Maurizio Rapotec as Goth Lieutenant, Bruno Bilotta as Roman Captain
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