The fall of an empire. The descent of man.
Titus, for those of you who might not have guessed, is a modern-day film adaptation of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. With Anthony Hopkins (Hearts In Atlantis, Hannibal) in the title role and a strong supporting performance by Jessica Lange (Cape Fear, Tootsie) it is hard to imagine how Titus could disappoint. The play is one of The Bard's lesser known and seldom talked about tragedies. It certainly doesn't enjoy the popularity of the more widely read Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. Don't be misled by the apparent lesser status of Titus Andronicus; it is one of Shakespeare's most powerful, tragic, and brutal plays. It puts under a microscope the repulsive and repugnant side of human nature. Indeed, Titus is a virtual catalog of gruesome atrocities fashioned by some of the play's more devious and twisted characters. There are about a dozen killings, several dismemberments, and one case of cannibalism. Not that these abominations are the central attraction. The play explores at length the motives that might cause someone to perpetrate such deeds.
Facts of the Case
The story begins with Titus Andronicus, a Roman general, returning to his homeland after a long but successful campaign against the Goths. During that war, Titus manages to capture the Queen of the Goths, Tamora. Following Roman tradition, Titus sacrifices Tamora's eldest son in honor of his own who were lost during the ten years of war with the Goths. Tamora pleads for Titus to be merciful and spare her son, but her pleas fall on deaf ears. Tamora then begins to design a strategy to exact retribution against Titus.
By a twist of fate, Tamora becomes Empress of Rome though her marriage to the Emperor Saturninus. She has now attained a position of influence and status, with the means to carry out her plans of revenge. She plots with her Moorish lover Aaron to frame two of Titus's sons for the slaying of the Emperor's brother Bassianus. Tamora then has her two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, rape Titus's daughter Lavinia; afterwards they cut off her hands and tongue to prevent her from revealing the identity of the perpetrators to her father. Aaron comes to the home of Titus, who is still grief stricken over his daughter, and tells him that the Emperor has agreed to spare his sons if Titus cuts off his hand and sends it him in Rome. Titus complies without hesitation. However, it proves to be nothing more than the trickery of Aaron. The Emperor, with his deranged sense of social justice, has Titus's sons severed heads delivered to him at his home. At this point in the story, one begins to see some vague parallels to the Biblical story of Job, given the numerous personal tragedies that are heaped upon the title character. But Titus Andronicus is not a study of faith when faith is sorely tested. It plays out more like a carefully calculated chess match, and after all that he suffers Titus begins to maneuver his pieces into place for a checkmate.
To that end Titus begins to act strangely, and convinces just about—everyone—especially Tamora—that he has gone mad with grief. Tamora, being the manipulating woman that she is, tries to take advantage of this by disguising herself and pretending to be Revenge personified, with her two sons playing the roles of Rape and Murder. However, Titus is far more cunning and intelligent than Tamora gives him credit for, and shortly thereafter we see him slitting the throats of Chiron and Demetrius. This leads up to a shocking and stunning climax as Titus takes his final revenge on Tamora. An eruption of brutal killings takes place in the closing moments.
Director Julie Taymor, better known for her work on Broadway with The Lion King and a scant smattering of television productions, has scored a stunning triumph with this modern-day film adaptation of Titus Andronicus. She leaves no detail in this film to chance. The shots are meticulously framed and the locations and sets are carefully chosen and crafted. While largely remaining true to the subject, viewers need to keep in mind that this is a modern-day adaptation. Purists will no doubt find fault with such films. To them it might seem garishly unnatural to see Shakespeare that is adorned with contemporary accoutrements such as automobiles, modern architecture, jukeboxes, heavy metal music, and other products clearly borne of the 20th century. Where Titus differs from other films of this ilk such as Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, is that the former is far more successful than the latter in keeping the subject matter more rooted to its time—even if the themes themselves are timeless. Taymor, to be sure, achieves a seamless blend that does not hamper or tarnish the original work. For that alone, Titus is a resounding success.
Also of special note in this film is the work of cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. Much of his effort is a sheer thing of beauty. The sets, locations, and costumes are visually stunning, and Tovoli does a remarkable job of bringing the visual impact of Taymor's creative vision to film. The final product will have you re-watching numerous scenes and shots again and again just to marvel in their absolute opulence and splendor.
Then there is the casting and performances. Where do I begin? For starters, any film that features Anthony Hopkins or Jessica Lange is generally enough to pique my interest and, in most cases, motivate me to watch. That does not mean that every film in which they appear is a winner. But I think few can contest that these two are tremendous acting talents who get it right more often than not. Hopkins, by his very nature, seems made for the part. Indeed, he manages to strike an incredible balance of the grief and rage in the title role. He does this without over-acting or hamming it up for the camera (something that many actors doing Shakespeare have a hard time avoiding). Lange, for her part, is a real treat in the role of Tamora. She is quite convincing as an unscrupulous seductress who preys on the weaknesses of men to carry out her plot for revenge. When you watch this film, you can't escape the feeling that Tamora is one devilish and conniving woman.
The great performances, however, don't begin and end with Hopkins and Lange. Harry Lennix (Collateral Damage) in the role of Aaron is simply brilliant. A truly vile and evil character, Lennix brings that out with aplomb—especially when his character is about to be put to death near the film's conclusion and professes that this his only regret is that he will no longer be able to continue his evil ways. Also worthy of mention here is the performance of Alan Cumming (Get Carter) as the socially dysfunctional Emperor Saturninus. (Of course, anyone who has read Seutonius's "The Twelve Caesars" will know that many of the Roman emperors were sociopaths.)
Recognizing that we are dealing with Shakespeare here, some film fans are likely to be turned off by the thought of having to sit through a movie spoken entirely in Shakespearean dialogue. Sure enough, there are plenty of thous, thees, thines, hasts, and heretofores, and that might be enough make a non-Shakespeare fan think twice. If you fall into this category then don't be put off by this; if you do, then you will be cutting yourself out of a great film-viewing experience. You also just might be pleasantly surprised by how exceptionally well spoken the dialogue is and how easily it flows. To be sure, it is very easy to follow and make sense out of it—so much so that you can leave your copy of Cliff Notes on the bookshelf for this one.
I believe this screen adaptation is quite tastefully done. But make no mistake about it, Titus is a brutal and in some places a rather gruesome film. It is not, however, mindless Hollywood butchery aimed at an audience more interested in blood and guts than the story and characters. Still, the film has more than a few moments that some moviegoers will find particularly unsettling—especially those not familiar with the play. It is the violent and grisly nature of the film and a bit of nudity that has garnered an R rating from the MPAA. So you might not want share this particular movie experience with your young kids. For us adults, though, this film is powerful in its delivery and efficacious in its execution. In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel…wait a minute!! That's Hamlet! Sorry, wrong movie. I guess I got carried away there. All kidding aside, don't expect any searing moral conclusions from the film. Titus Andronicus is pretty much a morally bankrupt play, and the film very much keeps to the play's ambiguous moral tone. While I have dichotomized some of characters in the film as "evil," "conniving," or "unscrupulous," seldom are the goings on so cut and dried. Yes, some of characters do very bad things, even reprehensible things, but most of the characters are capable of eliciting some sympathy at one point or another. Who couldn't be sympathetic to a father pleading for the life of his newborn son? (I won't spoil it for you here, so you will have to read the play, or better yet see the film, to find out to whom I am referring!) With few exceptions, we are viewing tragic characters who rationalize that it's just fine to do very bad things to achieve their ends, and it's really up to the viewer to pass moral judgment. In the end, Titus asks huge moral questions, but doesn't offer much in the way of answers. For my taste this is exactly as it should be, otherwise the film would be reduced to little more than a moral commentary and wouldn't be nearly as powerful and commanding. After having watched the movie twice, I was left with a burning hunger to see more of Shakespeare's tragedies on my big home theater movie screen. I wouldn't be surprised if it has the same effect on you.
Titus is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, thus preserving the film's original theatrical aspect ratio. DVD fans will very approving of how Fox packaged this special edition release. The feature film and commentary tracks are arranged on disc one, and disc two is reserved for all the extras.
Watching this movie on my NEC XG110 8" CRT projector and 92" screen was a real treat. By and large the image quality was stellar. Edge enhancement is very light to non-existent. This film has a pretty wide color palette in some scenes, and the transfer has sufficient dynamic range to carry it forward in the on-screen presentation. The colorful scenes tend to be counterbalanced by some dark and foreboding sets, and many shots feature subdued lighting that tends to strain shadow detail. In this respect, the DVD also delivers, as delineation of fine detail even in the shadows is very good to excellent in most cases. I do have a few minor quibbles, however. There are a few minor problems with noise floor here and there, but nothing that most people with moderately sized screens would notice to the point of distraction. There are also a number of print flaws that show up on screen from time to time, and this did surprise me for a film that was released just a few short years ago. Fortunately they are relatively few and far in between. All in all, it's a very well done and visually satisfying transfer from film.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, and I will address my remarks to the former. One might get the impress that a Shakespeare play adapted to film might not offer much of a sonic performance. Let's be honest here, Shakespeare's tragedies are filled with dialogue, monologue, and soliloquy. In short, there's whole lot of talking going on. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The dialogue is largely focused on the front sound stage, this much is true. To its credit, though, the spoken word comes through with searing clarity—even on the film's many low sound level passages. However, the sound track does make use of the surrounds and even the LFE channel when appropriate. Some of the orchestral musical arrangements sound absolutely spectacular.
With regard to special features, this package has it in spades. Fox has really done a fine job with putting this production together. On disc one you get the feature film and commentary tracks. I usually don't go in for this sort of thing too much. I have time enough to watch the features, but not too much patience listening to directors and actors rambling on about how when a certain scene was shot they were trying to decide on what to order out for lunch. But this time around it was really well done. Director Taymor and star Hopkins actually offer some pretty good insights into the film.
Disc two is a real gem, complete with a 49-minute "making of" documentary that covers the entire production from soup to nuts. I think that after seeing the film many of you who buy this DVD will be very glad for the feature-packed second disc.
Titus is a film that belongs in every movie lover's collection. There is something here for just about everyone (save perhaps young kids), and even those who didn't care much for Shakespeare in their high school English classes will find something to enjoy in the film.
By decree of this court, Titus is free to go. Be sure to politely say no thank you the next time someone offers to serve you large helping of meat pie at the dinner table.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track with Director Julie Taymor
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