"I Have Done Thy Mother!": 'Titus' Review
My third film for Shakespeare Month is the 1999 film Titus, based on the play Titus Andronicus. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 69%, an almost three-hour run-time, and no knowledge of the original play's content, I was worried that it would be a tedious, drawn out ordeal. But, I pressed forward regardless.
To briefly sum up the plot of the play, Titus is a Roman General, who comes back from defeating the Gauls with their Queen and her sons in tow. However Caeser has just died, and a new one must be chosen. The people love Titus for his honor and military service, but he has no desire to rule, instead giving his support to Saturninus. Meanwhile, Titus murders one of the Gaul princes in a gruesome display. Saturninus demands Titus' daughter become his wife, but she loves his brother, who steals her away with the help of Titus' sons. In her absence, the new Emperor decides to marry the Gaul Queen. Using her newfound position at the emperor's ear she works against Titus and family, doing some incredibly disgusting stuff to them in the name of revenge for her dead son. Titus' family is destroyed, his daughter violated, his hand cut off, and his honor decimated. Then, in order to get revenge for all his woes, Titus kills the Queen's sons, bakes them into meat pies, serves them at a feast to the queen and emperor themselves, then snaps his daughter's neck, stabs the queen in the throat, gets stabbed by a candlestick, and lays dead while his son shoves a large serving spoon through the back of the emperor's throat. It's a brutal, hardcore examination of the rewards given by authorities for honorable and endless service without question of self, as well as a gripping tale of revenge filled with compelling and simultaneously vile characters.
The story alone would be enough to convince you to watch it if you're like me, but hold a moment as I express the visual and auditory style of the film itself. It opens on a delinquent child at a dinner table in a 1950s style modular home, surrounded by action figures. The kid freaks out and starts spraying his toy soldiers with ketchup and pouring milk all over the table. You wonder what's happening for a moment, and then a bomb goes off outside his window, a character runs in dressed like a post-apocalyptic biker warrior and grabs the kid and drags him toward the basement. When they step through the doorway, they find themselves in an empty, minimalist version of the Colosseum. The Mad Max extra sets the boy down and leaves, then rigid Roman legionaries begin marching in to fill the arena accompanied by dust-covered motorcycles, a small half track pulling chained prisoners, and Titus himself, who recognizes the child's presence and then turns to speak to monologue about his return from Gaul to the empty air outside the stadium. The play finally begins in full force as the child runs around as an observer and eventually becomes a character in the play itself as Titus' grandson. If that description sounded like nonsense to you, that's because it is – and it's the first ten minutes of this three-hour film. It took a few moments to grow on me, but once it did, I became thoroughly invested in its completion, condiment-covered action figures and all.
The rest of the feature looks and feels like a minimalist Tim Burton movie. Set pieces are giant, monolithic buildings standing alone against a bright blue sky. Costumes are brightly colored and range from the standard Roman togas to sophisticated leather outfits with flowing red capes and purple eye shadow. Soldiers carry shields and swords, and shotguns slung on their backs. Horses pull carriages behind a Popemobile and a convertible. The villains listen to death metal on a Walkman and smoke cigarettes while they play classic arcade games and drink Pepsi. The influences and colors are all over the place, and the soundtrack can best be described as circus jazz, giving it a backdrop of oddity and originality.
All of these insane but unique stylistic choices are the framework in which the performances of the otherwise untouched Shakespearean English are held, and these are excellent in and of themselves. Anthony Hopkins plays the titular Titus, bringing his indefatigable talent to the main role. Accompanied by stellar performances from Harry Lennix as Aaron, the conniving Moore whose unwillingness to take shit from anyone makes him the most stalwart character in the entire production, Alan Cumming as Saturninus the feckless Emperor, Jessica Lange as Tamora the Gaulic Queen, Angus Macfadyen as warlike Lucius Andronicus, and a whole cast of other talented individuals entirely committing to the characters they've been given.
All things considered, Titus is an excellent piece of Shakespearean film with the dialogue, characters, and emotion that one expects from one of Bill's tragedies, tied together with visual and auditory styles more unique than most films made today. Stick with it through the rather jarring opening sequence till Anthony Hopkins finally begins to speak and you will be drawn into a wacky world of death and vengeance.