Retro Review: Titus
Ancient Rome month roles on with yet another entry from the Bard. William Shakespeare’s first drama, “Titus Andronicus,” may be the most brutally violent play Shakespeare ever penned. If you thought the rampant stabbing and self-killing in “Romeo and Juliet” were eyebrow-raising, hold on to your garters, because Titus spills more blood in the first act then most plays can muster in an entire outing. Though often derided as on of Shakespeare’s least coherent work, director Julie Taymor has a field day with Titus, blending psychedelic visuals, vibrant performances, and mind-jolting anachronisms into a very very bloody and intriguing affair. This is Shakespeare with teeth, but lovers of his work know that all of the Bard’s best work was bloody red, both in tooth and claw…
Roman general Titus Andronicus arrives home victorious, but carrying a ghastly baggage. He has lost 21 sons in the brutal war against the Goths, and bears these bodies in train, as well as several important captives: Tamara, Queen of the Goths, her three sons, and Aaron, a Moor and secret lover to the queen. Escorting his slain sons to the family crypt, he then has Tamara’s eldest son hacked to pieces, despite her pleas, in order to quiet the ghosts of his dead relatives and to aid them on their otherworldly journey. Tamara and her remaining sons are justifiably pissed, and swear vengeance.
Great upheavals are afoot in Rome, and Titus arrives just as the last Emperor, Caesar somebody, has perished, and his two son are set to wage a bloody campaign in the streets in order to secure their ascension. Unfortunately, the people have petitioned the Senate to have Titus made Emperor…a position he wants nothing to do with. He opts for the honorable route, and gives the crown to the eldest brother, Saturninus, over the more deserving younger brother, Bassianus (who happens to be engaged to Titus’ youngest daughter, Lavinia.) Saturninus is a dick, however, and grabs Lavinia for his bride out of spite. Enraged, Bassianus and Titus’ surviving four sons spirit her away. To save face, Titus attempts to bring her back, and ends up killing the youngest son in the process. Go team Titus!
This is not enough bloodletting for the newly crowned Emperor, so he elects to shun Lavinia and take Tamara (the recently conquered queen of his enemies) as his bride. Flush with power, she and her sons, with the malicious aide of the thoroughly immoral Aaron, arrange for the vicious and bloody downfall of the entire Andronicus clan.
Give Them a Hand!
What follows is an orgy of violence: rape, maiming, assassination, be-headings and more lost limbs than a game of twister featuring Edward Scissorhands and Freddy Krueger. The list of misdeeds is so heinous, Saturninus would be in the running for a spot on the worst film emperors list…if only he weren’t just the petulant little spider at the center of Tamara’s wicked web.
Does the violence add or detract from the film? Upon my first viewing more than a decade ago, I found this film to be almost unwatchably gruesome. The scene with poor Lavinia in the forest is fiendishly grotesque, though the director wisely shows only the outcome of the attack. Anthony Hopkins surrenders a hand in order to ransom his sons from the Emperor, and due to his talents at visceral facial expressions, it is ghastly. The final scene is like a game of dominoes…if the dominoes were all stabbing each other as they fell. So be warned, this is not for the easily disgusted.
My second viewing left a different opinion. While the violence is prominent, it is used as a bloody exclamation point to punctuate important moments. Much like Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, the bloodshed is a tool used not just to shock, but also to emphasize. Without it, the film would actually be a little dull. Much like “Hamlet,” there is much groaning, hand wringing, vacillating, and soliloquizing to be done by the wronged hero before he gets his act together. The dual machinations of Tamara/Aaron’s plot and Titus’ counter plot grind towards an inevitable outcome, and the sporadic outbreaks of gore increase the tension as the stakes are continually raised in this mortal contest of wits.
Whatcha Got Cooking?
In the final accounting, Julie Taymor’s Titus is commendable for two reasons: first, the acting is top notch, with Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, and especially Henry Lennix (as Aaron) giving great performances. Hopkins plays a grand hero who is by turns stately, aggrieved, furious, and finally cunningly insane (which is pretty much Hopkins’ wheel house.) Jessica Lange intrigues and insinuates with a wicked sophistication. Henry Lennix is so unabashedly malevolent, he becomes strangely charming. There are a few weak links, as Alan Cumming as Saturninus can be insufferable, and the two young tumblers who play Tamara’s sons are over the top in their juvenile antics. Overall, the cast is quite excellent, and you’ll recognize many familiar faces even amongst the smaller roles.
Second, Titus is not afraid to be unabashedly weird. The film starts with a child using action figures to absolutely destroy his breakfast…until a real bomb detonates outside the kitchen and wipes out the whole scene. The boy is rescued and carried into a Roman amphitheater, where a clockwork legion of soldiers perform a bizarre and macabre dance routine. The Rome of Titus is a weird blend of archaic and modern, with chariots racing side-by-side with motorcycles decked out in faux armor. The score, likewise, covers a range of genres and eras from Jazz to Punk, and even throwing in a zesty bit of Parisian street music. When scenes of violence are deemed too grotesque to film, the director uses hallucinatory pastiches of psychedelic visuals instead. Indeed, much of the visual appeal of the film is how the grim and realistic flows seamlessly into the surreal and then back again.
Titus feels like a solid Shakespearean play that has been infused with the weirder elements of films such as Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen and Tim Burton’s Batman. If you have the stomach for all of the violence, Titus serves up a bloody feast of engaging cinema.