directed by Julie Taymor
(20th Century Fox, 1999)

It's a classic tale of war and double revenge. His forces defeat hers. Despite her pleading, he has one of her sons killed in a religious sacrifice. Later, his luck changes when his new ruler marries this recently defeated queen, and she vows revenge on her new country's former champion. After surviving utter devastation, he then plots his own revenge against her.

Most Shakespearean scholars agree that Titus Andronicus is the bard's first tragedy. Set in Rome, it carries on the tradition of violent Roman theater; it is one of Shakespeare's bloodiest plays. For that reason, it is astonishing that Julie Taymor, famed for directing the stage play The Lion King, would take on such a project for her film directorial debut. The result is a dramatic piece of violence that has turned off some viewers. However, while it is a bloodbath filled with rape, murder, bodily mutilation and even cannibalism, it is a strong production of a play not often even performed onstage.

Rather like Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet, Taymor sets her production in a blend of times. The film opens with a boy in a contemporary kitchen playing with toy soldiers. Suddenly, real war deluges him, and he is taken to Titus' world, where he will appear as Titus' grandson, Young Lucius (Osheen Jones). We see a visually stunning scene in which Titus' real soldiers march into Rome, so lockstep and rigid that mere walking makes them seem intimidating. As much as the story follows the pattern for the Elizabethan revenge play, it is also a tale of sacrifice. Father of 25 sons, Titus (Anthony Hopkins) returns victorious from the war with the Visigoths, but only four sons come home alive with him. His son Lucius (Angus MacFayden) reminds him that he must make a sacrifice to the gods, and to the dismay of Tamora (Jessica Lange), the defeated queen, that sacrifice is to be her eldest son.

Herein lies my biggest problem with this production. While Lange's character is meant to be a bold, stubborn warrior queen, the horrible revenge she plots and commits exists only because Titus ignored her cries and put her son to death. Granted that even Shakespeare doesn't give Tamora a wealth of lines with which to plead her case, but Lange's performance, perhaps due to Taymor's direction, doesn't fully break Tamora's cold attitude; she's not a mother desperately seeking her son's life. It's more as if she's fighting for a soldier who just happens to be her son. The cold, calculating anger she later portrays would seem stronger and more realistic if Lange's Tamora were permitted to soften a little and briefly become the concerned mother.

Titus first sacrifices most of his sons to the war, Tamora's eldest son becomes a sacrifice to appease the gods, and then Titus makes way for more sacrifice as he sacrifices his country and more of his family. Offered the chance to become emperor, he turns it down, supporting the candidacy of the late emperor's eldest son, Saturninus (Alan Cumming). Is this Titus' tragic error? Saturninus claims Titus' daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser) as his bride, ignoring the fact that she already is betrothed to his brother Bassianus (James Frain). When Lavinia's brothers help her escape, Titus, loyal to a fault, sacrifices one of his four remaining sons; he kills him as a traitor. In the short run, Saturninus decides he doesn't want Lavinia after all; instead, he marries Tamora. From that point on, Tamora has the power she needs to wreak revenge on Titus and his family. It's all downhill from there for the Andronicus clan until Titus is able to enact his own revenge on Tamora, ultimately creating a scene of gore and cannibalism (Anthony Hopkins is never typecast, is he?) well known in literary circles.

Taymor creates these scenes in a Rome that blends old with the new. Period-style helms mix with automobiles and video games; seemingly old buildings are the sets for MTV-style filming and music. A hand severed by a sword is placed in a Ziploc bag. Titus wears a white chef's hat more reminiscent of Chef Boy-ar-dee than any Roman or Shakespearean-era cook. Taymor follows the format of Greek tragedy rather than Roman when she deigns to keep much of the violence offstage. However, the image of the mutilated Lavinia is so striking in its representation of the unseen violence that it remains in the mind's eye far longer than it is on the screen.

While Taymor doesn't afford much motherly love to Tamora, Titus, although he kills a son out of loyalty to the emperor, is allowed to display fatherly love to Lavinia in one of the film's truly compassionate scenes. However, it's Aaron (Henry Lennix), Tamora's Moorish lover, who has helped Tamora with her fiendish plots, that manages to be an appealing character despite his noted lack of conscience.

The film goes over the top on several occasions. Saturninus is a parody of an emperor. His court is filled with bacchanalian scenes; the reign of Saturninus and Tamora is more Mussolini than Caesar. Scenes that might work better onstage seem unbelievable on film. It took how long for Marcus (Colm Feore) to figure out a way that Lavinia could communicate the names of her attackers, Tamora's remaining sons; and how realistic is it when two of Titus' sons accidentally wind up in a deep hole already occupied by a dead body?

Overall, however, it's difficult to compare this take with other film productions of the play because there simply aren't that many, particularly not from major studios. It is violent; the squeamish might avoid it or be prepared to look away from time to time. While this production goes over the top, the play does also. To borrow a phrase from Shakespeare's Macbeth, it's "bloody, bold, and resolute" if nothing else.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 28 September 2002

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