First, the clues: Although there is some small doubt as to the authenticity of its authorship, "Titus Andronicus" was probably written by Shakespeare. If he did write it, it is among the Bard's earliest creations, its date fixed at not later than 1593. The plot was popular during Shakespeare's lifetime, but it is not based on any real, known history. It is surely among the least performed of all his plays. And it is definitely his bloodiest.
Now, the test: Hollywood filmmakers decided to adapt the play to the screen because (a) they recognized that filmgoers love Shakespeare; (b) they wanted to make modern audiences more familiar with Shakespeare's early work; (c) they realized it was the only Shakespeare play that hadn't already been filmed by Franco Zeffirelli or Kenneth Branagh; (d) they liked the title; (e) they knew it was bloody. Circle your answer and send it to Twentieth Century Fox, c/o producers Jody Patton, Conchita Airoldi, or Julie Taymor; director Julie Taymor; or stars Anthony Hopkins or Jessica Lange.
Actually, director Taymor, who had just scored a flashy success on Broadway with "The Lion King," probably chose to film "Titus Andronicus" because she had mounted a stage production of it in 1994. She obviously wanted to bring her imagination and creativity to the big screen, but it's too bad she picked one of Shakespeare's least-successful plays to exercise her talent. To begin with, "Titus Andronicus" exhibits almost none of the character development that makes most of Shakespeare's plays noteworthy. Despite the movie's having one of the world's greatest actors, Anthony Hopkins, in the lead role, the personality of Titus shows little or no change throughout the story. He's stubborn, egocentric, and one-dimensional to the bitter end.
Worse, the play contains no secondary characters of any morally uplifting consequence, either. Next, while the movie "Titus" adheres closely to the Bard's plot line (where Shakespeare got it, no one is sure), it's a plot so over-the-top to begin with that many of the Bard's fans are reluctant to admit it's from their favorite playwright. And, lastly, the play evidences precious few moments of the beautiful Elizabethan verse we have come to expect from the world's greatest writer. Indeed, it is the play's lack of poetic genius that has moved some critics to question whether it was even written by Shakespeare. I wonder if any of the above explains why Shakespeare's name is almost buried in the small print of the credits? When I first saw "Titus" advertised on TV, there was no mention of the author at all!
It's not easy to explain Shakespeare's plots, and this one is as complicated as anything he might have written. But I'll give it a shot. The story opens with Titus (Hopkins), a Roman general, returning triumphantly to Rome after a victory over the Goths. (In the film, the army marches in stylized, lead-soldier fashion.) Among Titus's prisoners are Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Jessica Lange), Tamora's two sons, Chiron and Demetrius (Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Matthew Rhys), and Tamora's secret lover, a Moor named Aaron (Harry Lennix). Upon the death of the old emperor, Titus is offered the kingship, but he refuses. Rather, he upholds the right of Saturninus (Salan Cumming), the late emperor's eldest son, for the position. So, Saturninus becomes the new head of state and wants Titus's daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser), to marry him. But she is in love with Saturninus's brother, Bassianus (James Frain), with whom she flees. Titus goes after them and even kills one of his sons who tries to stop him. Saturninus decides if he can't have Lavinia, he'll marry Tamora, of all people. This also serves the purpose of disgracing Titus in the process. Once Saturninus and Tamora are wed, Tamora and Aaron scheme revenge against Titus for defeating them and executing her oldest son.
Tamora's sons (remember Chiron and Demetrius?), under the influence of Aaron, murder Bassianus and then rape Lavinia, cutting out her tongue and hacking off her hands so she can't reveal to anyone who did it. Aaron arranges the blame for Bassianus's murder be placed on Titus's sons, and Saturninus puts them under arrest awaiting execution. But Tamora and Aaron have yet another plan up their sleeve. The treacherous Aaron goes to Titus and tells him that the emperor will put off his sons' executions if one of the Andronicus family sends a peace offering of a chopped-off hand in return. Titus does it himself, having his own left hand cleaved and delivered. In return for his favor, Titus receives the hand back from Saturninus, along with the severed heads of his two sons!
But it gets better still, and by the conclusion we find horror piled upon horror. Titus, disgraced, three more of his sons dead, his daughter violated and mutilated, and now missing a hand, plots his own vengeance. It's almost too grisly to describe, but it's not the movie making it up, it's Shakespeare; it's in the book. Aaron is captured and glories in telling everyone what he and Tamora have been up to. Titus, pretending to have gone mad, tricks Tamora's sons into coming to his house, where he coolly strings them up by their heels and slits their throats, while Lavinia holds a basin to catch their blood. Then he invites Tamora and Saturninus to his house for dinner and serves them a meat pie made of the ground flesh of Tamora's two murdered offspring. After making this repulsive gesture, Titus openly kills his daughter to put an end to her shame, and then stabs Tamora to death. Saturninus kills Titus and is himself killed in turn by one of the few remaining Andronicus family members, Lucius, who is proclaimed the new emperor. (In the play, the author merely writes that Lucius "kills Saturninus." In the movie he shoves a long-handled spoon down his throat.) What happens to Aaron? He's tortured to death in the story's finale, a scene suggested in the play but, as expected, displayed to lurid effect in the movie. I know I haven't covered everything, but you get the idea.
Whereas Shakespeare sets his play in Rome and the countryside around it, director Taymor sets the tale somewhere in a combination of ancient Rome, late 1930's fascist Europe, and Mad Max's apocalyptic future, with a '58 T-Bird, a modern video game, weird hairdos, and body tattoos thrown in for good measure. Thus, we see chariots alongside motorcycles, swords alongside shotguns, and horses next to armored cars. This bizarre juxtaposition of historical modes is one of the few entertaining diversions in an otherwise bleak two-and-a-half hours.
The whole production is so blatantly melodramatic, bombastic, theatrical, over stylized, and over blown, it's hard to take any of it seriously. Maybe we're not supposed to. Maybe Shakespeare was pulling our leg all along, and Taymor is just stringing us along. I mean, Taymor even gives us a broadcasting company called the S.P.Q.R. News ("Senatus Populusque Romanus," the Senate and Public of Rome). How else are we to take this but for laughs? Even Hopkins gets into the black comedy when in addition to occasionally imitating the vocal inflections of Richard Burton, he several times imitates his own portrayal of Hannibal Lecter!
As usual from the people at Fox, the picture quality is generally excellent. The screen is a wide, 2.17:1 ratio, and the colors, although never intentionally bright, are fairly clear and stable. There is very little bleed-through, little or no grain, and almost no shimmering lines.
The sound, coming in Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby Surround, is also fine, despite a small and unaccountable degree of background hiss. Otherwise, the DD 5.1 track provides good tonal balance, good range, good transient impact, and good directionality in the rear speakers for effects like music, marching, thunder, rain, and interior voices.
I hadn't mentioned it, but this set is a Special Edition, packaged on two separate DVDs. Disc One contains the film itself, plus a full-feature commentary by the director; scene-specific commentary by actors Anthony Hopkins and Harry Lennix; and an isolated musical score with commentary by composer Elliot Goldenthal. Disc Two contains a forty-nine-minute behind-the-scenes documentary, "The Making of Titus"; a thirty-five-minute segment of questions and answers, excerpts of Julie Taymor speaking at Columbia University; a five-minute bit called "Penny Arcade Nightmares," dealing with the film's special effects; a costume gallery; two American Cinematography articles by Steven Pizzello; thirty-two scene selections divided amongst five acts; and six theatrical trailers and TV spots. English is the only spoken language, but subtitles are provided in English and Spanish.
You've got to hand it to Ms. Taymor for choosing a script that had everything in it: murder, mayhem, torture, disfigurement, sex, rape, implied incest, nudity, and cannibalism. And maybe you can't blame her for milking it for all it was worth. But I question who she thought her audience might be. Fans of Shakespeare would as soon forget the play. Fans of action spectacles may be frustrated by Shakespeare's long speeches and Elizabethan language.
This is no "Spartacus" or "Gladiator." This is all style and no substance; all gesture and no meaning; all surface and no heart. Blame much of the problem on the Bard; blame the rest on Taymor for underlining it. If she had wanted to strut her stuff, she might have chosen "Macbeth," a great play with more than enough of the grotesque and fantastic to go around. Besides, there has yet to be a good screen rendering of "Macbeth" that does it justice. Instead, we get "Titus," an inflated adaptation of bad Shakespeare. Doesn't seem fair. But at least she didn't set it to music.