Thursday, December 9, 2010

Titus (1999)

Little did I know, when I literally tried to pitch a film adaptation of Titus Andronicus to Quentin Tarantino several months ago, that critically acclaimed director Julie Taymor made her debut bringing Titus to the big screen back in 1999.  I guess that explains why Tarantino’s agent never got back to me.  Note to self: do more research before contacting Hollywood agents with your next big idea.  In fairness to Julie Taymor, I’ll say that I was dreading my viewing of Titus well before I hit play.  Shakespeare’s text is so gruesome and disturbing that I wasn’t sure I had the stomach to make it through the whole film.  But with Taymor’s Tempest on the way, I knew that I had to acknowledge this bold new voice in Shakespearean cinema.

I had braced myself for horror, but nothing could have prepared me for Titus’s opening scene.  Having expected the action to begin in ancient Rome, I was caught completely off guard when the first thing I saw was a young boy with a paper bag over his head, breaking his toys apart amid a large-scale ketchup explosion at a 1950s-era kitchen table. In fact, I was afraid I had inserted the wrong disc into my DVD player.  Though this fear turned out to be unfounded, the strange scene made for anxiety-filled viewing all the same.  Things did calm down for me moments later as a large man, dressed entirely in black, burst through the kitchen window to seemingly kidnap this child.  Normally, this would be alarming, but once you see the kind of mess the kid was making, you’ll accept the fact that he had to be stopped somehow.

Don't try to seem innocent, kid.  You know what you did.

As the black-clad biker guy carries the messy child into a gladiatorial-looking colosseum, through a geographical route clearly not possible in our reality, I was quite thoroughly confused.  Bear in mind, this is just minutes into the film.  When Roman soldiers began to parade in, I was relieved to finally see some connection to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus as I knew it.   Then, amidst the foot soldiers and horses, came the motorcycles and miniature tanks.  Again, I was lost.

While I understand that it is not uncommon for productions (whether for the stage or the screen) to transpose the setting of one of Shakespeare’s plays – Kenneth Branagh does this brilliantly in his 2006 production of As You Like It – that’s not exactly what’s happening in Taymor’s Titus.  Taymor explains in the bonus features that she “wanted to blend time.”  Unfortunately, the particular blend she attempts here (part Ancient Rome, part 1950s) serves more to distract from the story than it does to enrich it.  If Taymor’s reason for the strange setting is to somehow highlight the contemporary relevance in Titus Andronicus, then I would argue that it isn’t necessary: an intelligent audience can make that kind of connection without such obvious assistance.

Anthony Hopkins as Titus, keeping it gritty

Fortunately, this blending is less at the forefront as the film moves forward, and Taymor’s fantastic cast gets to truly take center stage.  Anthony Hopkins is as dynamic as ever as the ill-fated Roman general, steering Titus’s course from proud soldier, to grieving father, to wrathful avenger perfectly.  As Titus’ victimized daughter Lavinia, Laura Fraser’s performance is filled with a beautiful and suitably heartbreaking vulnerability.

Fraser as the horrifically mutilated Lavinia

The Andronici are beset with violence by a full complement of villains: Alan Cumming is the weasel-y Saturnine, while Jessica Lange is the vengeful and cunning Tamora, Queen of the Goths.  Tamora’s sons, played by Jonathan Rhys Myers – who is apparently shady in three out of every four roles he plays – and Matthew Rhys, are so completely despicable that I’m unable to feel any sympathy when vengeance quite literally consumes them.

But the most remarkable performance of villainy (in every sense) comes from Harry Lennix as Tamora’s lover, Aaron.  Aaron’s scheming leaves so many people dead and mutilated by the end of the film, and Lennix does an outstanding job of bringing Aaron’s sadistic maneuvering to life.  Lennix had been a part of Taymor’s 1994 stage production of Titus Andronicus, and his long-term investment in the work is evident in his dynamic portrayal of this very complex character.  Aaron is a psychopath – not even in death does he express any remorse – yet his protection of his newborn son hints at something more than just maniacal in him.  Lennix does a great job of capturing this complexity, and of seeming so evil.

Harry Lennix, rocking an evil haircut as Aaron.  Maybe that was
his motivation: getting back at the world for doing that to his hair.

There are many commendable performances from this cast, but the Shawn and Shakespeare Show Stealer Award goes to Angus MacFadyen.  I remember MacFadyen best as an outstanding Robert the Bruce in Braveheart, and he proves he is still on top of his game here in Titus as the tragic Roman’s son Lucius.  Throughout much of the film, Lucius is there in the thick of things both to react to his father’s unbelievable actions (killing his son, then refusing to bury him in the family tomb) and to his family’s misfortunes.  In this, MacFadyen is awesome: intensely incredulous and outraged and horrified, yet always in the way most relatable to the audience.  Lucius is the character we can understand the most clearly in the reactions he has and the actions he takes.  He’s a heroic everyman.  After Lucius is banished from Rome for sticking up for his family, his father Titus sends him to raise an army with which they might overthrow tyrannical emperor Satrunine.  Lucius really comes into his own after being banished, and steps out of his father’s shadow.  Here MacFadyen really shines, presenting himself as a strong and formidable leader.  There is a fantastic scene when Aaron comes to Lucius’s camp to ask for the care of his son, and in the exchange Aaron confesses himself to be the architect of all the violence against the Andronici.  MacFadyen’s emotion at this discovery is phenomenal, and a great example of what he can do on screen.  As Lucius becomes emperor after the film’s bloody climax, MacFadyen’s portrayal of strength and integrity gives the audience hope that he might rule the empire justly.  In this sense, Lucius is kind of the Fortinbras here (a la Hamlet), taking up the reins in the wake of all the tragedy.

Angus MacFadyen as Lucius, picking up the pieces

All in all, Titus is a gutsy production for director Julie Taymor, and her faithfulness to the story and the script show a commendable reverence for Shakespeare.  In the DVD extras, Taymor says that Shakespeare “truly understands the depths of human nature,” and here she tackles a difficult play in which that nature proves especially monstrous.  Taymor goes on to say of Titus Andronicus, “I love the truth of the play, but I can’t stand the reality of the play.”  Her understanding of that dichotomy for even the most appreciative Shakespeare audience serves her well in Titus, as she succeeds in bringing it to life in a powerful way on film.  Taymor’s decision to “blend time” in this production is a distracting misstep, but the high quality of the overall piece and its performances make it well worth overlooking.       

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