movie review by
David Ng



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Titus Andronicus has wasted his life. The most esteemed general in the Roman Army, he has conquered the Goths, earned the respect of his countrymen, and managed to raise loyal children. He has devoted his life to the idea of Rome, ubiquitous and infallible. But when Titus swears allegiance to the new but insane emperor Saturninus, his beloved Rome turns on him. The tragedies that ensue are Olympian in their cruelty. There is death, rape, dismemberment, amputation, and torture. Few Shakespearean heroes suffer as much as Titus does, and there are fewer who are able to endure it with so little self-pity. Titus treats each tragedy like a battle scar -- painful but squarely in the past.

Only Anthony Hopkins could play Titus. His face is a map of creases that could tell a whole history of struggle. When Titus must witness the execution of his sons, he buries his face in the mud and shouts in vain to the Gods. When he sees his daughter Lavinia raped and ravaged, he sheds a few tears. When he learns that he has sacrificed one of his limbs in vain, he barely winces. Hopkins captures progressive numbness with minimal outward expression. All of his emotion is directed inward until it builds up and overflows onto the screen. Hopkins also gets to stretch his skills as a comedian. The penultimate scene in which Titus dishes out pastries made of human flesh is riotously macabre. Hopkins practically dances around, barely able to contain his self-satisfaction. And yet it is all part of his master plan. Just when we think Titus has gone insane, he pulls back from the brink and shocks us with an amazing display of control. Like Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day, Titus has wasted his life. But unlike Stevens, Titus gets the chance to exact revenge.

Titus isn't the only one who is scheming. Tamora, the Goth Queen, wants Titus to suffer for the execution of her eldest son. With the help of her Moor lover Aaron, she wins the heart of Saturninus, becomes Queen of Rome, engineers the rape of Lavinia and frames Titus' sons for the murder of Batius, the emperor's brother. She is Rome's first career girl and she is truly Titus' intellectual equal. Jessica Lange devours the role like a tigress. She has a timeless sexuality that, when mixed with intelligence, yields a lethal venom. Tamora may have been a young woman, but the part requires an actress with a few lines on her face. Like Titus, she has been through hell and is determined to rise again. She isn't interested in dwelling on her painful past.

Titus has such a sprawling, jumbled story that only the avant-garde director Julie Taymor could possibly be up to tackling Shakespeare's dare. The play spans the entire range between tragedy and farce. Scenes of utter devastation (limbs, organs, entire bodies fly through the air) are immediatly followed by wildly overstated humor. A director must be agile to make this story work, and Taymor proves she has the goods. Instead of trying to tame Shakespeare's play, she lets it run freely. Set designer Dante Ferretti fuses Ancient Rome and Fascist Italy for a pan-totalitarian feel. The costumes by Milena Canonero are equally anachronistic combining togas with runway chic. The international cast, with actors from Britain, America, Canada and Italy, brings divergent accents and acting styles together. With her net cast so widely, Taymor achieves the breadth and reach for Shakespeare's play to flourish.

Compared to other visual reconceptions of the classics, Titus ranks among the most brilliant. It has the imagination of Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books and is infinitely more coherent. It is assured in its visual strategy and somehow manages to remain egoless. Julie Taymor isn't an attention hog like Kenneth Branagh. She doesn't compete with the Bard. She merely provides the stunning backdrop on which the play unfolds.

Taymor also wrote the screenplay. You can tell where she feels the play cracks apart because she inserts a silent chorus in the form of Titus' grandson, a skinny pre-adolescent who plays with action figures. He holds the many subplots together and is crucial to the final, haunting image that closes the movie. Taymor might have made a leaner movie if she had pared down the tangents and diversions. But this is Shakespeare's fault, not hers. Titus is an innovative masterpiece that takes an imperfect story and transforms it into an arresting emotional and aesthetic experience.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]