Click here 4 stars
Anthony Hopkins The
Don't-Follow
Leaders
Blues

Anthony Hopkins and director Julie Taymor
team up for a brilliant rendition of Shakespeare
"Titus"

Reviewed by John Orr

(Click on the images to see larger version and credits.)

It's a droll tragedy that Shakespeare — the greatest populist writer of all time — is so often ignored by most film fans.

Our average citizen snored through "Julius Caesar" in high school, and thereafter skipped every chance to dip into the greatest well ever of capitivating storytelling, fanciful phrasing and human understanding.

Such people tend to think that old Will is only for literati, a view shared by some academics — the sort who have their noses buried so deep in books they have lost touch with actual human beings.

Shakespeare never lost touch with human beings. His writing can reach us all.

A case in point is "Titus Andronicus," a play that went out of academic fashion a few hundred years ago. As late as 1968, G. B. Harrison wrote "The horrors in 'Titus Andronicus' are too much; if ever presented on a modern stage they would move the audience not to shudders but to guffaws."

Of course, that was before "Alien" popped out of John Hurt's stomach, before Linda Blair ravaged herself in "The Exoricist" and before Steven Spielberg showed us a soldier picking up the torn-off end of his own arm in "Saving Private Ryan." Not to mention the tasteless excesses of such meaningless films as "Scream" and "Nightmare on Elm Street."

Julie Taymor, Anthony HopkinsMoving the audience to pathos in horror instead of laughter is the job of the director, and in Julie Taymor, who made the film "Titus," based on "Titus Andronicus," Shakespeare has a talented and persuasive champion.

In her hands, and with the help of the great Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange and an overall excellent cast, the play reviled by academics as Shakespeare's worst becomes one of the greatest films of the Bard's work. It can grab even today's jaded filmgoers and shake them powerfully with an overwhelming story filled with irony, wit and tragedy.

Jessica LangeIt is the story of a faithful Roman general who comes home from war with the defeated Queen Tamora of Goth and her three sons as prisoners. Most of Titus' own sons have died in battle, and he allows Tamora's eldest son to be sacrificed by his surviving sons, despite Tamora's pleas.

Titus is offered the emperorship but refuses it, giving his support instead to Saturninus, son of the late emperor. Saturninus has been in bitter political fights with his own brother, Bassianus, and the first thing he does when crowned is demand Bassianus' betrothed, Lavinia, as his empress. Lavinia is Titus' daughter.

Bassianus takes her away, with the help of Titus's surviving sons, which outrages the old general, who believes in the Roman emperoracy. He slays one of his own sons while trying to get his daughter back.

Amused by that, Saturninus dismisses Lavinia and marries Queen Tamora instead.

Jessica Lange, Alan CummingsGot all that? Titus gives his all to his leader, only to have all thrown back in his face as the emperor marries the beautiful prisoner he brought back — who deeply hates Titus. That's all just in Act I.

Then things get even more twisted and violent, as Tamora begins to extract deadly revenge on Titus and his progeny, with the help of her Moor lover, Aaron.

The horrors are considerable.

"Don't follow leaders," Bob Dylan would write about 450 years after Shakespeare wrote "Titus," but it's the same lesson, and one Titus learns only bitterly in this powerful revenge roundelay.

DVD notes

The two-disc DVD set includes commentaries by Taymor, Hopkins, Lennix and composer Elliot Goldenthal, a Q&A session with Taymor, a documentary on the making of, a costumes gallery, trailers and other odds and ends. The feature is in widescreen format, with subtitles in English and Spanish. The VHS tape, with, of course, far fewer features, is priced for sale to rental shops.

Modern filmmakers have had fun moving Shakespeare's plays into more modern times, such as Ian McKellen's brilliant "Richard III," which puts that tragedy into the fascist 1930s. But Taymor is not held to a single era. Instead, she tweaks our intellects by switching from time to time in history as it suits her imagery.

When Titus' mud-covered army, looking like toy soldiers come alive, marches into a coliseum, they are joined by motorcycle troops in Nazi coal-bucket helmets. When Tamora's evil surviving sons are idle, they play pool and video games, listening to heavy metal.

Anthony HopkinsHopkins delivers Shakespeare's writing better than any else I've ever heard, on stage or on film, and makes Titus' incredible swings all the more believable. Lange is terrific as the queen old enough to have three grown sons yet still attractive enough to seduce the foolish, fopish emperor. Alan Cumming is excellent as Emperor Saturninus; Henry J. Lennix makes Aaron powerful and controlled in his rampaging evil. Laura Fraser as Lavinia seems to have concentrated her craft for the part of the play after Lavinia is ravished and her tongue and hands cut off. She is much better mute.

Theater or Video?
I missed it in the theater, but was thrilled by it on the small screen.

DVD at Amazon.com
VHS at Amazon.com.

See cast, credit and other details about "Titus" at Internet Movie Data Base.