Sixteenth Century Shock Theater – The Bloody Revenge of Titus

Titus (1999)
Directed by Julie Taymor
Based upon Titus Adronicus by William Shakespeare
Starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange
Fox Searchlight Pictures

A child plays with his war toys, a legion of Roman soldiers marches in, the dead emperor’s sons parade through the streets in motorcades, a 1920s swing band plays while naked Romans frolic in a pool straight out of Caligula, and a son dies at his father’s hand for refusing to give his sister to the newly-chosen emperor.

That’s just the first ten minutes, give or take. Imagine what will happen in the two and a half hours yet to come.

This is the surreal and slightly absurdist world of Titus, based on William Shakespeare’s least-known tragedy, Titus Adronicus. Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal, The Mask of Zorro) plays Titus, a Roman general who has been at war for forty years and has seen twenty-one of his sons die. Upon his return to Rome, he ensures that Saturninus is named the new emperor instead of his brother Bassianus, who is also Titus’ own son-in-law.

Saturninus, played by Alan Cumming (GoldenEye, Broadway’s Cabaret), promptly rewards Titus’ loyalty by claiming Titus’ daughter and Bassianus’ wife Lavinia as his mistress. When Titus’ sons refuse to allow this, Titus kills one of them in his rage. This will be the first step in the gradual destruction of Titus’ world.

Upon losing Lavinia, Saturninus takes a Goth named Tamora as his empress. Tamora, played by Jessica Lange (Rob Roy, Cape Fear), has seen her eldest son executed at Titus’ order, and both she and her remaining two sons want nothing more than to make Titus pay.

The most important thing to know before diving into Titus is that you shouldn’t spend too much time trying to figure some things out. For example, this film does not take place in a set time period. One minute we’re in a setting that might pass for ancient Rome, and the next we see citizens reading about the emperor’s death in their local newspaper. The none-too-subtle idea here is that the story of Titus is not necessarily tied to a specific period. Just accept it now or you’re in for a long movie.

First-time director Julie Taymor’s artistic interpretation of Titus is the most impressive aspect of the film. It also tends to be the film’s greatest flaw. This is one of very few films that is so visually stunning, even the opening credits will leave you in awe. However, it’s also a little too easy to tell when Taymor decides to flip on the arty switch to show you how avant-garde she really is, and the results are painful. Taymor made her name as the director of the Broadway production of The Lion King, and some of her artistic sensibilities don’t make a smooth transition to the screen.

The original play Titus Adronicus wasn’t well received when it was written, and it is still generally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s lesser works. The level of violence and depravity demonstrated in this play is so high that some scholars believe it was intended as a parody of the blood-soaked works of Shakespeare’s fellow tragedians. Others feel it was a desperate playwright’s attempt to get noticed. Either way, it’s shockingly violent for a Shakespearian play, and even the most battle-hardened of horror movie fans should cringe at the fate of poor Lavinia, an image that will return to you in your sleep.

Despite the great talents of the rest of the cast, the most memorable performance of Titus comes from the relatively unknown Harry J. Lennix (Get on the Bus, Clockers) as Aaron, the scheming lover of Tamora. He teaches Tamora’s sons their villainy, betrays and attacks Titus in unimaginably cruel ways, and runs away with the movie in the process. There’s something intriguing about villains who absolutely revel in their evil; when we last see Aaron, he offers the dubious confession, “If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.”

The only guarantee for Titus is that you won’t feel very happy afterwards. This is a tragedy, a story of a man whose life and family are destroyed around him, and it ends with the final desperate acts of a man who has lost everything, including his sanity. Some may say that Shakespeare is spinning in his grave over this production, while others applaud Taymor for giving the tragedy such a serious and meticulous treatment. Either way, Titus is not easy to watch, but it can be enjoyed for any of several reasons and is definitely something you haven’t seen before.