Directed by Julie Taymor
Review by Matt Heffernan
Filming a Shakespeare play is a daunting task, and it rarely pays off. The Bard is just too darn theatrical for the cinema. Usually, only his most famous plays are filmed; 1999 saw new versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew (10 Things I Hate About You), Macbeth, and The Twelfth Night. The last Shakespeare film of the year, however, is based on one of his most obscure plays: Titus Andronicus. For me, that title was only another entry in his works, until now.
Lord Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) returns to Rome, having defeated the Goths and captured their queen, Tamora (Jessica Lange). Soon after, Caesar dies, leaving two sons to claim the empire: Saturnius (Alan Cumming) and the younger Bassianus (James Frain). The Roman patricians elect Titus to be emperor, but he declines, nominating Saturnius, even though Bassianus is engaged to his daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser). When Saturnius takes the throne, he names Lavinia to be his empress, and that's just fine by Titus.
Bassianus and Lavinia feel otherwise, and elope. Saturnius then decides to marry Tamora and set all the Goth prisoners free, including her Moorish slave, Aaron (Harry J. Lennix). Tamora uses this new position to plot revenge against Rome with Aaron, who is also her lover. They have her sons kill Bassianus and maim and rape Lavinia, while framing two of Titus' sons. What follows is a macabre play of intrigue, murder, and various unpleasantries.
It is difficult to find any fault with the play Titus Andronicus, but this a review of its interpretation: Julie Taymor's film Titus. What she has done is turn the play into a jumble of anachronisms, gleefully inserting technology and fashion of different modern eras into the film. Also added are several avant garde sequences that give a visual elaboration of the story. Some of these touches work, but most of them only serve to distract from the story, which is told with typically brilliant dialogue.
The actors certainly understand the true power of the play, and most of the performances are very good. Hopkins, of course, has to carry the film, and he does his best work in a long time. Most impressive, though, is Lennix. He relishes every evil little thing that Aaron does, and often has to serve as a chorus, commenting on the action around him.
I must say that it was refreshing to see a wholly new Shakespeare play performed. What this film has done is piqued my curiosity of this odd work. I've never even heard of it being performed on stage -- at least nowhere that I could have seen it. It's certainly too full of sex, violence, and just plain weirdness to be taught in high school or most college classes. Hopefully this film does spark a stage revival, and then I will finally be able to fully appreciate the play.
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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan