Z To A: Titus (1999)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

Plot Synopsis: An adaptation of the Shakespeare play “Titus Andronicus.” Titus returns victorious from war, only to plant the seeds of future turmoil for himself and his family. Who says revenge is sweet?

– From IMDB page

If you’d told me that people would be making Julie Taymor jokes ten years ago I wouldn’t have believed it. She seemed too avant-garde, too much of creative force in the world of Broadway/art/opera/you name it. Sadly, the failure of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark and The Tempest have done just that- ushering in negative reviews, bad press, parodies on SNL and damaging her credibility overall.

Which is a shame. I wouldn’t consider myself a Taymor fan but her directorial debut, Titus, is one of the most underrated Shakespeare adaptations around. Other than a friend or two, I don’t know anyone else who has seen it. I find this kind of strange because the general public likes Shakespeare adaptations. It makes them feel smart and stuff. Then again, Baz Luhrmann wasn’t directing this time around.

I’m not saying it’s the best film ever made, but Titus does warrant attention. Taymor’s treatment of the material is ambitious and thought-provoking, and although its core material was written in the 1500s it still explores issues relevant today: familial bonds, acts of war, duty vs. logic, racism, sexual violence and- of course- revenge. All of this is examined in a challenging, singular way. This is why it’s in my collection.

The bulk of Titus explores sanctioned acts of violence and the effects on families who suffer the consequences. Both main characters (and rivals), Titus (Anthony Hopkins) and Tamora (Jessica Lange) lose children, shamelessly plot, go to pieces and repeatedly strike out at one another. Why? Because they are parents who love their kids. No matter how powerful or impenetrable they may seem, they are only human.

The most notorious example of this occurs near the middle of the film. Tamora’s sons, Chiron (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) rape and mutilate Titus’s daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser). The act not only destroys Lavinia, but her father as well. Upon seeing her he remarks: “He that wounded her hath hurt me more than had he killed me dead.”

Although Titus is no stranger to death or losing family members it is his daughter’s suffering that overtakes him. Of course, the way he handles it is quite controversial – Titus Andronicus is no stranger to controversy. Despite this Taymor emphasizes a father’s compassion and respect for his daughter as a human being. When his brother refers to Lavinia in the past tense, saying she “was,” Titus gently corrects him. Hopkins reads the line as “so she is,” and turns the 500-year-old text on its ear. It almost sounds feminist coming from a man of the old world.

Other aspects of the film and its source material seem ahead of its time. The exploration of race doesn’t only involve the relations between Tamora and “her Moor” Aaron (Harry Lennix), but the differences between the warring Goths and Romans. However Aaron’s comments on prejudice and racial hatred are the real stand-outs here. The line “Is black so base a hue?” will stay with me for a long time, and I still marvel that it was in a Shakespeare play, back in a time when Africans were considered little more than property.

Aaron is anything but property. He is a fully formed character and extremely smart. Thing is, he is a completely unrepentant sociopath.

But even unrepentant sociopaths can have protective feelings toward their children. Although Titus heaps one heinous act on another its driving force is the bond between parent and child. Everyone makes efforts to protect their own. Furthermore, Taymor hones in on the children in the story, particularly when it comes to the film’s point of view. The proxy for the audience is Young Lucius (Osheen Jones, who played the young Jack Fairy in Velvet Goldmine), a contemporary boy who has fallen down the rabbithole and into the coliseum.

The only thing going against Taymor is that Titus Andronicus was early Shakespeare. It isn’t his strongest work. The language isn’t as developed as his later plays. Some of the plot developments happen quite quickly and seem illogical or strange. This is painfully apparent when Tamora and her sons grow too confident with their designs on Titus. I thought, “What are you basing your decisions on? There are so many ways these plans could go wrong.” Not surprisingly, they do.

The actors’ performances in this film definitely left an impression after seeing it for the first time. Everyone I was introduced to in Titus looked strange anywhere else. It was weird to see Laura Fraser in A Knight’s Tale (2001), James Frain in True Blood (2008 – ongoing) or- most notably- Harry Lennix in Dollhouse (2009 – 2010) (I was like, “Seriously? Why is he talking American?”).

It was also the second time seeing Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in anything, furthering my notion that he was born to play delinquents and rapists. Although he was only twenty or so he understood the language, which impressed me more this time around. On the other hand he spends almost all of his scenes leaping around, yelling and faking orgasms. I think this explains why I had a hard time watching him play a soccer coach in Bend It Like Beckham (2002). I spent the whole film expecting him to stab or rape someone so I hardly enjoyed it.

Lastly, I was surprised to read that Jessica Lange had never performed Shakespeare before. She made playing Tamora seem effortless. Likewise, Alan Cumming and Anthony Hopkins took on roles they were born to play. Cumming’s Saturninus is pure panache. Hopkins’ Titus is as quintessential as his Hannibal Lecter. You can’t help but note how his performance foreshadows Lecter’s deeds in Hannibal (2001).

Then there’s Taymor and her overall vision. Titus is imaginative and gorgeous- full of colors, grandiose sets and striking images. Although she embraces the medium Taymor’s background in theater is still present for the most part. She shows a restraint in the violence that reminds me of the stage, and the result is a film that is fairly bloodless… well, at least bloodless considering its content.

But Titus isn’t about violence as it is about how we process it and what it means. The film begins with one child and ends with two, taking a farewell walk from the coliseum and into the light. It’s a powerful moment because it’s a symbol of leaving violence behind, but frustrating since it seems impossible.

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