For me, movies generally fall into two categories: the ones I absolutely love, and the misfires I’ve never been able to understand. The gray area in the middle – where movies of copious production, but little entertainment, value reside…ah, now there is the most fascinating pantheon yet to be discussed, and arguably the platitude on which Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999) rests. Ever since seeing it I’ve had this love/hate relationship with the movie. I love to hate it which, as a critic, is so unlike me. I mean, there’s usually something I can find even in the most awful flubs to recommend a movie.
I think the chief problem that persists, the one this mind refuses to even begin to wrap itself around the fringes of acceptance, is that Taymor is working with an extraordinary cast. True, William Shakespeare’s play, Titus Andronicus is the least celebrated and/or revived of the playwright’s works – his first stab at the revenge tragedy and, many scholars agree, not a terribly good one at that; shameless in its borrowing from Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe and utterly desperate in its attempt to mimic the masterworks of Sophocles. Then again, wasn’t the bard supposed to be a shrieking fraud…I mean, at least, according to Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous (2011)? But I digress.
Titus is just one of those movies I have never been able to warm up to. Believe me, with a cast featuring some of my all-time favorites (including Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Alan Cummings, and Colm Feore) – each, in a class by themselves - I have sincerely tried to appreciate this movie as something other than dreck. But Titus defies my admiration and consistently stirs a momentous and gnawing displeasure from within. So I am probably the wrong person to write any review about this movie, incapable - as I am - of remaining objective. I just hate it – completely and without reservation. Bad, I know. But it may help the reader to understand this before embarking upon the rest of my acrimonious prose. To paraphrase – ‘oh, unhappy man, I cannot accept thee!’
For I can see absolutely no point to the exercise: the artifice-infused choreography as the returning Roman centurions, in their clunky blue-gray art deco armor, looking like a bunch of break-dancing chickens, perform dance steps better suited to a Paula Abdul concert; the faux contemporary introduction of a young – though not so terribly innocent – spoiled brat eating breakfast at his kitchen table before suffering from a sudden and unexpected attack of pseudo-Tourette Syndrome; spraying his toys with milk and ketchup before being whisked away to the ancient past; the purgatory of styles and timelines feeding into a sort of diseased Baz Luhrmann-esque landscape where chariots, motorcycles, and 50’s finned automobiles collide with breast-plate wearing junkies and cavorting, cross-dressing cutthroats who oddly enough seem to foreshadow the gutter depravity that has since become acceptable behavior at The Grammy’s.
No, Titus doesn’t just raise my dander and dampen my spirits simultaneously because of director Julie Taymor’s run amuck eclecticism, but rather because in her zeal to transform Shakespeare’s most tedious play into high art she hasn’t made any artistic choices at all; rather, quite simply and moronically the opposite; filling the screen with every unattractive pestilence and pseudo-neorealist cliché her production designer, Dante Ferretti, and art directors Pier Luigi Basile, Massimo Razzi, and, Domenico Sica have suggested will be in service to the story.
Watching Titus again, I could almost believe Taymor drank from the same state-sanctioned Kool-Aid that gave Italy their Mussolini; the production full of utterly mad and unrestrained ideas allowed to take hold and dominate. No kidding; Shakespeare’s revenge tragedies are visceral experiments exposing the darker underbelly of the human condition, ending in death. But apart from Taymor’s affinity for cheap erotica and bump n’ grind kink, Titus remains an exercise in the wretched grotesqueness of degenerate humanity; severed heads, hands, tongues and oozing entrails strewn about its rather monolithic landscape and making no attempt to capture either the glories of Rome or pragmatic cynicism of the play. Taymor is relying on cheap shlock and shock value to get her points across. She doesn’t build upon the play’s multitudinous torments that drive Rome’s greatest warrior to debauched humiliation, total surrender and ultimately insane retributions against his enemies. Instead, she ladles and harps upon the grief, reveling in the play’s suicidal reckonings with all the B-grade subtlety of a Dario Argento slasher flick.
And the cast are none too clairvoyant either, but overcome by her invisible plague of faux incredulity masquerading as artistry; each overplaying their hand – Shakespeare’s words overly saturated in grandiose pontifications, the actors – with the exception of Jessica Lange’s uber-slinky Queen of the Goths - shrieking their lines at ear-shattering decibels with insipid contempt over each other to be heard; presumably having a grand time at being perpetually indignant without truly understanding what all this passionate ire is about.
Can I possibly write any more to make you think I like this movie any less? What is this? Titus Redux or a cheap burlesque gussied up with trashy/trendy sets? Nothing about the film has dated well in the interim – not that it seemed cutting edge in 1999 either; the movie’s indiscriminate timeline simultaneously distilled, while anchoring the narrative to its clattering, caliginous claptrap of livid diatribes. I’m not going to waste any more time trying to analyze this one. It is what it is – or rather, remains in my own perception. If only I could purge this memory as easily as I intend to expunge these files off my computer once this review is published.
We begin Taymor’s odyssey of endurance with young Lucius (Osheen Jones) eating breakfast at a table strewn with various toys mimicking the implements of war, and this in a kitchen straight out of the 1950’s. Please forgive; but the significance of this prologue and discombobulated timeline escapes me. The boy obviously has issues, because he begins to destroy virtually everything in sight; dunking his plastic warriors in milk and spraying them in ketchup. A bomb blast outside his window stirs the child to the realities of war. He is taken from the deluge by a rather oafish clown (Dario D'Ambrosi) and thrust into a blackened amphitheater where invisible crowds cheer. The Terracotta Army enters - bizarrely, with a frenetic stamp of the earth beneath their feet; their hero, Titus Andronicus (Sir Anthony Hopkins) having returned with spoils and prisoners: Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Jessica Lange), her sons, Alarbus (Raz Degan), Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) and Chiron (Johnathan Rhys Meyers) and Aaron – the Moor (Harry Lennox). Tamora begs Titus to spare Alarbus’ life. But he has been marked for execution and Titus, so that the spirits of his twenty-one dead sons may be appeased, carries out the death sentence with considerable ease.
We regress to the ‘Square Coliseum’, built by Mussolini and widely regarded as an iconic piece of fascist architecture. Here we discover that the Emperor has since died and his sons Saturninus (Alan Cummings) and Bassianus (James Frain) are engaged in a heated political campaign of succession, tooling around the Roman alley ways in open top 1950’s convertibles and WWII tanks, megaphones blaring their smug superiority for all to hear. The Tribune, Marcus Andronicus (Colm Feore) announces that the people's choice for a new emperor is his brother, Titus. Titus, however, is contented to remain what he is – Rome’s valiant warrior/servant. He refuses the title; the throne automatically reverting to the emperor’s eldest, Saturninus.
Partly to incur the people’s pleasure, but also to wreck the betrothal of Titus’ daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser) to his own brother whom he insanely despises, Saturninus publicly proposes marriage to Lavinia. It is a backhanded ‘honor’, but one Titus feels compelled not to refuse. To spare their sister this indignation, Titus’ sons help Bassianus and Lavinia escape the Pantheon. It is an embarrassing moment for Titus who illustrates his loyalty to the new emperor by slaying his own son, Mutius (Blake Ritson). Unimpressed by this sacrifice, and suffering the angst of being publicly spurned, Saturninus frees Tamora and makes her his Queen. Tamora persuades Saturninus to feign a forgiveness of Bassianus, Titus and his family. But afterward she quietly puts her own plan of revenge into action. A clandestine meeting between Tamora and Aaron in the woods is witnessed by Bassianus and Lavinia. Aaron sets Chiron and Demetrius after the pair to murder Bassianus as Lavinia helplessly looks on. His body is thrown into a pit and Lavinia raped by Chiron and Demetrius; her tongue cut out, her hands chopped off – gruesomely replaced with inserted tree branches – so that she can neither speak nor write down the identity of her assailants. When Marcus discovers her perched atop a stump in a muddy swamp she spews blood from her mouth in a silent scream.
Next, Aaron frames two of Titus’ sons Martius (Colin Wells) and Quintus (Kenny Doughty) for Bassianus’ murder, trapping them both in the same pit where Bassianus body lies and forging a confession letter detailing their complicity in the crime. The letter is, of course, taken at face value and despite Titus’ grief-stricken pleas, the boys are taken away to be executed at the Emperor’s command.
Not long afterward, Aaron arrives with a faux ultimatum. Martius and Quintus shall be spared if either Titus, his eldest son, Lucius (Angus Macfadyen) or Marcus will sacrifice their own hand. Each man vows to devote his limb to the cause. But only Titus succeeds in carrying out this bloody amputation, commanding Aaron, who blissfully lops off the appendage with a meat cleaver. Tragically, no reprieve for Martius or Quintus is forthcoming; their severed heads returned to Titus a short while later along with Titus’ own hand.
Having truly sacrificed all power and prestige, Titus now commands Lucius to depart on his own revenge, raising an army from their former enemies; the Goths against Rome. Titus's grandson, Lucius indicates that Lavinia has been persistent in pointing out to him the story of Philomela – a mute not unlike herself who ‘wrote’ the name of her wrongdoer. Clutching a stick between her lips, Lavinia scratches the names of Chiron and Demetrius’ into the dirt. It is more than Titus can bear. Marcus instructs his kinsmen to intrude upon a rather garish orgy at the palace, firing their arrows with pleas for justice into the lavish gardens and sending the inebriated revelers scattering in all directions. Meanwhile, Lucius has amassed an army of Goths who march on the gates of Rome.
Tamora gives birth to a child of mixed race sired by Aaron. To conceal the birth from the Emperor, Aaron murders the nurse who attended Tamora as Demetrius and Chiron look on. Next, Aaron steals away into the night with his son. Captured by Lucius’ forces, Aaron confesses his complicity in Titus’ undoing, reveling in each monstrous detail. Convinced of Titus’ madness, Tamora, Demetrius and Chiron arrive at his home in the dead of night, masquerading as the spirits of Revenge, Murder and Rape. Tamora – as Revenge - instructs Titus to call off Lucius and his forces. In reply, he – Titus – will be granted sweet revenge against his enemies. Assessing the situation wisely, Titus insists that Rape and Murder remain behind. Tamora happily agrees, believing she has spared the city its demise. But once she is out of earshot, Titus’ servants attack and bind Chiron and Demetrius to a rack, Titus slitting their throats while Lavinia holds a basin to collect their blood.
The next day, Titus – dressed as a chef – invites the Emperor and his Queen to dine. The main course is a pair of freshly baked pies which the Emperor and Tamora consume. However, when Lavinia enters the grand hall, Titus asks Saturninus whether a father should kill his daughter if she has been raped. When Saturninus reluctantly agrees that only death can cleanse such a shame, Titus slays Lavinia in their presence. Saturninus is horrified and demands that Chiron and Demetrius be brought to him at once. Now, Titus gleefully replies that both sons are dead, baked into the pies they have been eating. Tamora is understandably sickened by this realization. But Saturninus flies into a rage, murdering Titus with a large candelabras. In reply, Saturninus is dispatched by Lucius; a revenge most sweet for his father’s death.
We are returned to the blackened Roman Arena where all this villainy began. Lucius regales the people of Rome with his tale. He is proclaimed Emperor and begins by issuing proclamations swiftly: that Saturnius’ remains be consecrated; Tamora’s body be flung to the wild beasts and that Aaron – who remains unrepentant and bitter to the end – be buried up to his neck and left to die of starvation. The movie concludes with young Lucius cradling Aaron’s bastard child in his arms and slowly walking down a long dark corridor toward the rising sun.
Titus could have been considered Grand Guignol. If only director Julie Taymor had suffered the afterthought a little bit more. Instead, what we have is a veneration of the perverted and incalculable horrors merely suggested in the play, but herein given that irreprehensible ‘in your face’ treatment that quickly devolves Shakespeare’s feeblest revenge-tragedy into a bloody abomination. Regrettably, Taymor’s stab at creating hybrid melodrama never rises above rank theatricality. She gives us misshapen villainy aplenty, so anomalous it can elicit dry heaves of ironic laughter. Taymor’s inspiration, it seems, was her own stage adaptation of the play done five years earlier. But the film is an anxious and unconvincing amalgam of…um…styles; the players’ punk’d by an aesthetic motif that serves no other purpose than to applaud the vanity of its distortion.
Anthony Hopkins is a superior talent. Yet, his Titus is an ill-conceived spook rather than that dashing warrior reduced to human rubble by muddled/missed opportunities and his own piteous need for revenge. Alan Cummings is a bizarre Emperor – an utterly effete antithesis of his namesake and quite unable to convince us he would prefer to spend his evenings with either Lavinia or Tamora as opposed to Chiron and Demetrius.
Harry Lennix’s Aaron is the play’s deus ex machine, herein reconstituted as a beastly thing; bitter, brooding and belligerent. We’re supposed to love to hate him or perhaps, despise our own compelled attraction to his disgusting treacheries. But Lennix gives us evil incarnate; a joylessly wicked thing; soulless and disturbing. He’s just bad – all bad – and characters without even a shred of redemption are very hard to relate to or appreciate.
In some regard, the supporting players fair better than their star-powered counterparts. Laura Fraser’s Lavina, as example, is an exquisitely dreadful creation – dead from the moment she witnessed the murder of her beloved Bassianus – yet forced to endure her emasculated victimization in haunted silence.
So too does Colm Feore manage sustained modicums of sincerity as the panged bystander who can do nothing to alleviate the erosion of his corrupted brother’s family. In the end, these performers are eclipsed, or rather, overshadowed by the more ostentatious and obnoxious among them. Most every scene begins and/or ends as a strident perdition; endless gnashing and/or clashes of swords between collectively damned souls. If only to give the audience pause to drink in the diction, Taymor ought to have encouraged her actors toward introspection and subtly. Instead, every character is wearing their hearts (or rather that vacant abyss where a heart ought to be) on their sleeve along with a sizable chip threatening to topple from their shoulders. In the end, it doesn’t work – not for a moment’s pause or in any comprehensible way as a collective whole. Titus fails us on every level. It is an utter waste of time.
The same can be said of Fox’s 1080p transfer released through Twilight Time. I recall when Titus had its debut on DVD back in 1999 how the Fox Searchlight logo was mired in some rather obvious and severe edge enhancement. Well, guess what? That same edge enhancement is present at the start of this hi-def transfer! No upgrade at all!!! Fox has merely ported over the same flawed digital files from 1999 onto this Blu-ray. What a crock and a sham! The image is softly focused throughout and occasionally quite blurry, with weak contrast, pasty flesh tones that veer into ‘piggy pink’, dull colors throughout and a thorough lack of indigenous grain and fine detail present as a result. Worse, we still have dirt, scratches and other nicks and chips in evidence throughout this transfer.
Honestly, Fox didn’t even go back to a camera negative to source this disc. They simply took their digital files from whatever working print was at hand back in 1999. We have chroma bleeding for God’s sake; and aliasing in background details married to artificial sharpness applied to the point of distraction. Truly, I would love a straight answer from Fox – what was the point in releasing this title to Blu-ray in its present condition – even through third party distribution via Twilight Time?!?
Another irony: the DTS-HD 2.0 surround fairs better than its 5.1 counterpart: dialogue appearing to lack clarity in the latter. Jessica Lange’s whispered coos and plotting are inaudible at average decibel levels while the more frequent tirades shouted out by the rest of the cast become garbled and strident. Junk in/junk out. What a mess!
With the exception of an isolated score featuring Elliot Goldenthal’s eclectic music, all of the extras are ported over from the 1999 DVD. They include 3 separate audio commentaries, and nearly two hours of shorts and Q&A sessions that document the ‘making of’ Titus, plus trailers and TV spots. Julie Kirgo is being exceptionally kind in her detailed liner notes; always a treat to read – regrettably, the only joy I found from my viewing experience herein. Bottom line: Titus is a dud. Not recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)