Titus (1999)

*. One of the few visual resources for the production of Shakespeare’s plays in his own time is the so-called Peacham drawing, which is a sketch apparently made by one Henry Peacham of a performance he saw of Titus Andronicus maybe sometime around 1595 (there is no scholarly agreement on any of this, but I’m giving you the usual line). The drawing (probably) depicts Tamora pleading for the lives of her sons before Titus, a scene from early in the play. What’s interesting about it is the medley of wardrobe on display, with some attempt at classical garb and then a mix of renaissance finery and military get-ups from different ages.
*. I mention this just as a way of introducing the blend of costumes and historical fluidity throughout Julie Taymor’s Titus. Not only is this nothing new, it may in fact be as old as performances at the Globe itself. I mean, it’s hard to tell when Shakespeare’s play is even meant to be set in terms of Roman history. There was no real Titus Andronicus and the story might have taken place in the early Republic or late Empire.

*. There haven’t been many modern adaptations of Shakespeare as brassy, bold, and variegated as Titus. The remarkable thing about it though is that for all its seeming chaos of time and imagery, its blend of history, media and myth, it holds together so well.
*. It was Julie Taymor’s first feature film and she was coming off the stage production of The Lion King on Broadway that had blown everyone away. What she does here is very theatrical but in a good way, not stagey or feeling constrained to a set. Much of the action is outdoors, but shot in Rome (and the Arena in Pula, Croatia) which is basically a giant stage set anyway.
*. Reviews were mixed and there was almost zero box office, but the latter at least might have been expected. Shakespeare’s audience had an appetite for the messiness of Senecan tragedy, but today I think our taste for gore is more closely confined to genre ghettos and the intensity of the violence here, the real theatre of cruelty, is alienating. In other words, it’s hard to watch.
*. It’s not a play I care for, and I think the scholarly consensus now is that Shakespeare only wrote a few bits in it. So I give Taymor a lot of credit for making something not just so stylish but well done in most essential departments.

*. For all the crowd scenes and background characters it’s envisioned very much as a two-hander, foregrounding the conflict between Titus (Anthony Hopkins) and Tamora (Jessica Lange). Harry Lennix is fine as the villainous Aaron and Alan Cumming as Saturninus is a caricature baby-man/drag queen, but they’re both playing very much in the wings. I didn’t like Demetrius and Chiron as clubby punks, but then what’s to like about them? They’re barbarians in the play.
*. Hopkins was appearing in everything around this time and frankly was spreading himself too thin. He’s on stabler ground here and does a great job as a proto-Lear, suffering the fate of the old fool who gets into trouble by putting his faith in others and neglecting his duty to the state. It’s not a great role, but he does everything he can with it and that’s a lot.

*. The revelation though is Lange, in what I was surprised to find was her first time doing Shakespeare. At age 50 she’s still glamorous (and even topless in one scene), channeling the femme fatale of her earliest screen appearances in films like The Postman Always Rings Twice and King Kong (beauty killing the beast). As a villain she’s well on her way to her later career turn to cable hagsploitation in American Horror Story.
*. If the costumes are all over the map, from classical to 1930s fascism, the tone is even more so. Taymor mixes in some comic notes that are deliberately jarring, like the reveal of the heads of Titus’s sons by a pair of what look like carnival barkers, but I thought that sort of approach worked. Indeed, it’s mainly the ending, with the boy walking off with Aaron’s spared son into the dawn that seemed false to me in its hopefulness.
*. In sum, it’s a movie I’d fully recommend but only for a select audience. It’s 162 minutes of often unpleasant action and if you’re mainly interested in just hearing Shakespeare done in a beautiful voice that’s not what’s on tap. What you do get are great design elements and two solid lead performances in a play that you’re not likely to see much of on stage or screen. And while it may not be a definitive Titus Andronicus, I can’t say I want to see another anytime soon.

12 thoughts on “Titus (1999)

    1. Alex Good

      That third picture is where they discover Lavinia and it’s a real showstopper. Just a horrifying image. If you have the time to invest in this one I think it’s worth it, but it divided critics and I know it’s not for everyone. Does make for a memorable production of an otherwise hard to rate play.


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