Shakespeare November: Titus (1999)

Doing Shakespeare November has been a lot of fun on this site.  Its been great to revisit some of these great movies and relive amazing performances from Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Olivier, and numerous others.  While it has been awesome to review those films, there are other Shakespeare adaptations that are not universally celebrated or even that good.  In fact, you can almost say that these movies are a big mess that are way over the top and completely ridiculous.  Some of these adaptations that come to mind include Baz Luhrman’s “Romeo + Juliet”, Derek Jarman’s “The Tempest” and the film I am reviewing today, Julie Taymor’s version of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”, simply titled here “Titus”.

For those who don’t know, Julie Taymor is an incredible Broadway director and production designer that directed the incarnation of “The Lion King” on Broadway.  She has also directed numerous feature films such as the 2002 biopic “Frida” and 2007 Beatles Musical “Across The Universe”.  “Titus” was her first feature film, and since she has also directed another Shakespeare play, “The Tempest” which starred Helen Mirren.  While there are those that feel Taymor is an auteur of the first caliber, “Titus” is a complete wreck of a film that does not know what it wants to be.

The story concerns itself with Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) a bloodthirsty soldier

Hopkins as Titus

of Rome who has ravished the homeland of Tamora, the Queen of the Goths (Jessica Lange).  As Titus returns to Rome after conquering the Goths, Tamora plots her revenge and through her revenge, Titus’ daugther Lavinia (Laura Fraser) ends up being raped with her tongue cut out and his sons are killed.  To cut the story short Tamora’s sons are served in a pie to her and everyone dies.  The End.

The first problem is that “Titus Andronicus” is not a good play to adapt.  While it is awesomely bloody and crazy, the plot relies on too much outside interference and chance, and its hard to root for Titus as our hero.  He is not as interesting as Hamlet or Lear, but instead more bland and is given to only one thing: Violence.  The other characters also do not really stand out either (beside Tamora and her lover Aaron the Moor).  In fact, Taymor often has to add weird subplots to the characters to make them more interesting: this boils over to including a weird homosexual incestuous relationship between Tamora’s sons, and a framing device with Titus’ grandson Lucius. Only Alan Cumming as the Emperor Saturnius and Jessica Lange as Tamora appear to know what movie they are in (an over the top cheese fest) while Anthony Hopkins and others looks just bored with the material.

Alan Cumming as Saturnius

With this problem with the characters in mind, it is really not surprising that Taymor focused on the visuals and costumes, which is what she is known for.  And in fairness, they are amazing.  Taymor really knows how to do things visually, which is great when filming a Shakespeare movie.  However, this proves to be distracting because the visual style of the film is too over the top and distracts from the performance of the actors.  This likens itself more to a Michael Bay version of Shakespeare where the focus is more on Sets, Costumes, and Spectacle than it is on the performance.  Furthermore, Taymor blends different historical design periods into the film: Titus is usually dressed in Roman attire, Saturnius and Rome itself look like something from the Fascist era, and the Goths are dressed as punk rockers.  This further makes the film an over-the-top hodgepodge of different styles that make the film even weirder.

Overall I would say this movie is worth a watch if you want to see a heavily flawed Shakespeare play that has great violence and a great visual style, otherwise this is probably one of the messiest Shakespeare adaptations ever put on film.

Fun Fact #1: You may know Laura Fraser as Lydia from “Breaking Bad”

Rating: 1 1/2 out of 4 stars




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