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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Titus

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange
Director: Julie Taymor
Rated: NR
RunTime: 140 Minutes
Release Date: February 2000
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Laura Fraser, Angus McFadyen, James Frain, Kenny Doughty, Colm Feore, Harry J. Lennix, Alan Cumming, Osheen Jones

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

One online critic ended his review of "Titus" with the comment, "If you like slasher films, check it out." How silly. If this comment were valid, the one theater in New York showing the film would have been crowded with teens, but not a one was in sight (which could mean that none were on site of that reviewer). Sure, there are some meetings of knife with flesh in Julie Taymor's wonderfully vivid and visceral adaptation of the early play by Shakespeare "Titus Andronicus"--which has more in common with Jacobean melodrama than Shakespearean tragedy. But this play--underrated and underplayed through the centuries because some effete intellectuals thought it was too bloody to be taken quite seriously--is masterful in its evocation of humanity's thirst for revenge, for bloodletting, for the vindication of some cause of other. Look only to the endless cycle of action and retaliation which during the present decade has pitted Tutsis against Hottentots, or Croats and Serbs and Muslims against one another to see that "Titus Andronicus" is no period piece irrelevant to contemporary times.

Using Dante Ferretti's smashing production design, "Titus," filmed mostly in Italy especially by Hadrian's Villa and Mussolini's 1930s government center, Taymor wisely and imaginatively avoids making this a museum piece. In the spirit of such recent adaptations as Baz Luhrmann's 1996 "Romeo and Juliet" (albeit without that creation's blatant immaturity), Taymor has forged a well-developed, innovative construction with some remarkable acting by seasoned British performers spouting dialogue that remains true to the Bard's literary genius. Taymor has reigned in the special effects team to avoid any semblance of a video-game mentality, saving the fantasy impressions for an occasional display of the title character's supposedly insane mind-state, while throwing in contemporary touches like the Thunderbird on which the emperor Saturninus rides into town, an infrequent appearance by motorcycles, tanks and trucks, and a scattering of 20th century firearms. Aside from these, the film makes us aware that we are indeed in the ancient Rome of the Fifth Century, with a young man from the 1990s bearing witness to a world in which human destructive passions are not much different from those of his own time.

Taymor--who directed Broadway's hit musical "The Lion King"--opens the scene on a youth of about 11 years who is playing destructively with toy soldiers on a kitchen table, overturning all the food in sight with his marauding armies. An explosion erupts and the boy is seized by a Mad Max character and transported to the Roman Colosseum where he witnesses a horde of gladiators marching simultaneously to an unheard beat to celebrate the return of General Titus (Anthony Hopkins) from his successful campaign up north against the Goths. Having lost twenty-one sons in battle, Titus is in no mood to appease his important prisoners, notably the Queen of the Goths, Tamora (Jessica Lange) and Tamora's sons. He therefore promptly orders the execution of her firstborn--thus setting in motion a plethora of revenge fantasies. When Titus's daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser) rejects a marriage offer by Emperor Saturninus (Alan Cumming), the emperor willfully takes the Gothic queen as his wife, never realizing that Tamora has a secret lover who plots against all, the unrepentant and evil Moor Aaron (Harry Lennix). When Tamora's idiotic sons Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) rape Lavinia, cutting off her hands and replacing them with twigs while slashing out her tongue to prevent her from accusing them, Titus vows to vindicate his daughter in a culinary fashion.

"Titus Andronicus," which foreshadows more thoroughly realized and developed works like "King Lear," also features scenes which would be given berths in "Hamlet" (Titus's feigned insanity) and "Othello" (Aaron's Iago-like wickedness). Anthony Hopkins does a splendid job of exhibiting his character in all modes of conduct, humorous when serving a vindicating meat pie to the emperor, diabolical when affecting derangement, pitiful when contemplating his mangled daughter Lavinia, resolute in planning his strategy against the establishment. Alan Cummings, who is at his best in lightly humorous roles such as his performance as a hotel desk clerk in "Eyes Wide Shut," is not as convincing as the habitually enraged leader of the world's most powerful empire, but Jessica Lange sparkles as the seductress who ably covers her sinister designs behind benevolent smiles.

Despite the difficulty that a modern audience might expect from a work that keeps Shakespeare's 16th Century English intact, this "Titus" is easily accessible to the sophisticated audience to whom it is directed. Taymor's direction is so physical that the actions speak for themselves, gestures and deeds pumped up ably by Elliot Goldenthal's puissant score and Luciano Tovoli's lavish camerawork.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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