War begets revenge. Victorious general, Titus Andronicus, returns to Rome with hostages: Tamora queen of the Goths and her sons. He orders the eldest hewn to appease the Roman dead. He declines the proffered emperor's crown, nominating Saturninus, the last ruler's venal elder son. Saturninus, to spite his brother Bassianus, demands the hand of Lavinia, Titus's daughter. When Bassianus, Lavinia, and Titus's sons flee in protest, Titus stands against them and slays one of his own. Saturninus marries the honey-tongued Tamora, who vows vengeance against Titus. The ensuing maelstrom serves up tongues, hands, rape, adultery, racism, and Goth-meat pie. There's irony in which two sons survive. Written by
Julie Taymor conceived of Saturninus (Alan Cumming) as being from the 1930s and rooted in Fascism, whilst Bassianus (James Frain) came from the 1950s and was concerned with conservatism. This is reflected in the cars they travel in and the clothes their supporters wear during the political speeches. See more »
The position of the spoon as Lucius jams it down Saturninus' throat. See more »
Had you not by wondrous fortune come, this vengeance on me had they executed! Revenge it, as you love your mother's life or be ye not henceforth called my children!
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In recent years, a new fashion has sprung up among filmmakers who have attempted to bring Shakespeare's works to the screen. No longer content to keep the plays bound to the historical eras in which they are set, many an adapter has chosen to transport the plots and dialogue virtually intact to either a completely modern setting or a strange never-never land that combines elements of the past with elements of the present. In just the last few years, we have seen this done with `Romeo and Juliet,' `Richard the Third' (albeit this one made it only as far as the 1940's) and even Kenneth Branagh's `Hamlet,' which, although also not exactly contemporary in setting, did at least move that familiar story ahead in time several centuries. Now comes `Titus,' a film based on one of Shakespeare's earliest, bloodiest and least well known plays, `Titus Andronicus,' and, in many ways, this film is the most bizarrely conceived of the four, since it creates a world in which - amidst the architectural splendors of ancient columned buildings - Roman warriors, dressed in traditional armor and wielding unsheathed swords, battle for power in a land disconcertingly filled with motorcycles and automobiles, pool tables and Pepsi cans, punk hair cuts and telephone poles, video games and loud speakers. The effect of all this modernization may be unsettling and off-putting to the Shakespearean purist, yet, in the case of all four of these films, the directorial judgment has paid off handsomely. Not only does this technique revive some of the freshness of these overly familiar works, but these strange, otherworldly settings actually render more poetic the heightened unreality of Shakespeare's dialogue. Plus, in all honesty, Shakespeare's plays are themselves riddled with so many examples of historical anachronisms that the `crime' of modernization seems a piddling one at best.
Those unfamiliar with `Titus Andronicus' may well be caught off guard by the ferocious intensity of this Shakespearean work. Moralists who decry the rampant display of unrestrained violence in contemporary culture and look longingly back to a time when art and entertainment were supposedly free of this particular blight may well be shocked and appalled to see Shakespeare's utter relishment in gruesomeness and gore here. In this shocking tale of betrayal, vengeance and rampant brutality, heads, tongues and limbs are lopped off with stunning regularity and it is a measure of Julie Taymor's skill as a director and her grasp of the shocking nature of the material that, even in this day and age when we have become so inured and jaded in the area of screen violence, we are truly shaken by the work's cruelty and ugliness. Yet, Taymor occasionally injects scenes of daring black comedy into the proceedings, as when Titus and his brother carry away the heads of his sons contained in glass jars while his own daughter, who has had her own hands chopped off in a vicious rape, carries Titus' own dismembered hand in her teeth! There are even meat pies made out of two of Titus's enemies to be served up as dinner for their unwitting mother. Thus, even though we can never take our eyes off the screen, this is often a very difficult film to watch.
`Titus' is filled with elements of character, plot and theme that Shakespeare would enlarge upon in later works. It includes a father betrayed by his progeny (`King Lear'), a Moorish general (`Othello'), a struggle for political power (`Julius Caesar' among others) and - a theme that runs through virtually all Shakespeare's tragedies - the need for revenge to maintain filial or familial honor. Anthony Hopkins is superb as Titus, capturing the many internal contradictions that plague this man who, though a beloved national hero and military conqueror, finds himself too weary to accept the popular acclamation to make him emperor - a decision he will live to rue when his refusal ends up placing the power directly into the hands of a rival who makes it his ambition to bring ghastly ruin upon Titus' family. Titus is also a man who can, without a twinge of conscience, kill a son he feels has betrayed him and disembowel a captive despite the pleas of his desperate mother, yet, at the same time, show mercy to the latter's family, humbly refuse the power offered him, and break down in heartbroken despair at the executions of his sons and the sight of his own beloved daughter left tongueless and handless by those very same people he has seen fit to spare. Jessica Lange, as the mother of the captive Titus cruelly dismembers, seethes with subtle, pent-up anger as she plots her revenge against Titus and his family.
Visually, this widescreen film is a stunner. Taymor matches the starkness of the drama with a concomitant visual design, often grouping her characters in studied compositions set in bold relief against an expansive, dominating sky. At times, the surrealist imagery mirrors Fellini at his most flamboyant.
The fact that this is one of Shakespeare's earliest works is evident in the undisciplined plotting and the emphasis on sensationalism at the expense of the powerful themes that would be developed more fully in those later plays with which we are all familiar. At the end of the story, for instance, many of the characters seem to walk right into their deaths in ways that defy credibility. We sense that Shakespeare may not yet have developed the playwright's gift for bringing all his elements together to create a satisfying resolution. Thus, it is the raw energy of the novice - the obvious glee with which this young writer attacks his new medium - that Taymor, in her wildly absurdist style, taps into most strongly. `Titus' may definitely not be for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach, but the purely modern way in which the original play is presented in this particular film version surely underlines the timelessness that is Shakespeare.
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