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Unexpectedly Memorable, But Not Entirely Successful
on 10 November 2003
TITUS ANDRONICUS is perhaps the least regarded of Shakespeare's plays, and there are several reasons. Written early in his career, it shows little of the brilliant language we associate with Shakespeare's work; moreover, the plot is extremely derivative and so extravagant as to be virtually unbelievable, owing a great deal to both Roman "closet drama" and the "revenge tragedy" popular at the start of Shakespeare's career. At best, most critics regard it as developmental; at worst, a virtually unperformable mishmash of spurting blood and grotesque comedy.
The plot is notoriously bloody. Titus Andronicus has returned to Rome after successfully subduing the Goths, and he brings with him Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and her three sons as prisoners. Upon his arrival, and in spite of Tamora's pleas for mercy, he sacrifices Tamora's oldest son--but when Tamora's charms cause the newly crowned emperor Saturnius to crown her as empress, Tamora and her Moorish lover Aaron plot to destroy Andronicus for his refusal to show mercy to her oldest son. And the revenge they wreck is horrific indeed, as is the revenge Andronicus seeks against them in return. Before the story ends, we've seen rape, limbs lopped off, tongues plucked out, and two heads baked in a pie.
Given the outrageous nature of the story and the very loosely constructed plot and script, it shouldn't be a surprise that director Julie Taymor's film is not entirely successful. What IS surprising is that TITUS is as successful as it is. Coming from a remarkably strong theatrical background, Taymor follows suit with the script, giving it the most extravagant visual and highly theatrical style her limited budget will allow. When it works, it works extremely well; when it fails, which is fairly often, it is at least visually interesting.
Although I found that Anthony Hopkins' performance in the title role left something to be desired, he is at worst rock solid; this aside, the overall cast is amazingly good, with the major laurels going to Jessica Lange as the evil Tamora and Harry J. Lennix as her doubly evil lover-slave Aaron; Alan Cumming also makes a vivid impression as the weak-minded and ineffectual Emperor Saturnius, as does Laura Fraser as Titus' hapless daughter Lavinia.
But as previously noted, the great attraction here is the look of the thing. In terms of the script itself, Taymor is very faithful to the original--but in order to bolster its weaknesses she transposes the story to a collage-like never-never land that includes elements of ancient Rome, the roaring 20s, set pieces that would seem lifted from the notorious film CALIGULA, and fascist Italy. There are moments when the effect is flatly awkward--the first few opening minutes of the film being a case in point. But for the most part, Taymor's stylistic vision is quite remarkable, and while you may not care for the basic vision it remarkably done nonetheless.
For myself, I did not particularly expect to enjoy this film, but even though I was extremely critical of some of Taymor's ideas I found myself watching it straight through from beginning to end. Although the DVD version does not seem to be widely available in the UK, it is worth noting that the DVD edition contains a number of excellent bonuses that will help the uninitiated grasp Taymor's intent more fully.
Those most likely to enjoy the film are people with a strong interest in theatre, design, and art films with an extreme edge; for them it will probably be a "must own." At the same time, however, I do not put it entirely out of bounds for more casual viewers, for there is much to recommend it--but I would also suggest they watch it before making a purchase.