THERE'S SOME CONTROVERSY over whether or not The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's worst play: some say it is, others say it's so awful that Shakespeare couldn't possibly have written it. However, Titus, the film version of the play, is one of the best cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare ever.
The competition there is not, of course, terribly fierce, what with the limp offerings from Kenneth Branagh and the overwrought, Freudian farce that Laurence Olivier made of Hamlet. But regardless of its company, Titus is awesome. It's beautifully photographed, impeccably acted, and most stunningly staged.
The story is one of Shakespeare's most gruesome, featuring two beheadings, three severed hands, a rape, an extracted tongue and two Gothic princes baked in a pie. In that regard it is Shakespeare's most primitive (and contemporary) piece, but it's also a ripping yarn about misplaced loyalties and the escalating cycle of revenge.
Director Julie Taymor puts a creepy spin on the tale by starting her film in a cramped, modern kitchen. A young boy, wearing a bag over his head, plays war with a table full of mismatched action figures, smashing them into cakes, and wreaking imaginary havoc.
Suddenly, a Centurion appears and abducts the lad, taking him through a cupboard to an ancient Roman coliseum. Strange, animated soldiers snap to life around him, and the makings of real war replace his table full of toys.
Running off, he begins to watch as the events of the play unfold.
The titular Roman general Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) has just returned from battle bearing as prisoners Tamora, queen of the Goths (Jessica Lange), and her three sons. Seeking revenge for the death of 21 of his own sons, Titus kills Tamora's oldest son before her eyes.
This is the kind of thing that always leads to trouble in your standard Jacobin revenge drama, but Titus, apparently unversed in the tropes of the genre, now thinks he has the world in his hands.
Next, Titus is called upon to support one of two rival brothers for the emperor's throne. Here, the Roman sets start humming with motorcycles, and a modern glassy tower rises amongst the ruins. The deceased emperor's eldest son, Saturninus (played by Alan Cumming, who is campy and delicious as always), arrives in a black version of the Popemobile, dressed in fey black leather. He is challenged by his younger brother, Bassianus, who is more popular and less unctious. Titus, though he knows of Saturninus' less savory side, supports him, thinking the oily emperor will show him favor. Further insinuating himself into the imperial good graces, he offers Saturninus his only daughter, Lavinia, to be his empress.
Oops. Seems she's already betrothed to Bassianus. She runs off with him, and an enraged Titus kills one of his own sons when the boy tries to stop him.
Things just go downhill for Titus from there, as Saturninus takes Tamora to be his empress. Remembering that Titus killed her son in front of her, Tamora vows revenge, and with the aid of her Moorish lover Aaron sets out to destroy the entire Andronicus family.
Director Taymor dresses Tamora in gold and furs, and gives similar costumes to her debauched sons Demetrius and Chiron. This allows the Goths to stand in contrast to the Romans, who wear black and white and silver. All within the decadent halls of the emperor's palace exude the love of evil that contemporary Goth rockers pretend to.
Demetrius and Chiron combine Gothic barbarity with Roman excess in their depraved machinations, as they scheme to find and deflower Lavinia. With the help of their mother and Aaron the Moor they capture and kill Bassianus and then rape and mutilate Lavinia, cutting out her tongue and cutting off her hands and replacing the hands with branches from a marsh tree.
Gruesome, yes, but those are the classics for you. What sets Taymor's adaptation apart from so many other Shakespeare movies is that it doesn't put the play on a pedestal, or bow down in reverence to the holy Bard. This is a movie to be watched, not admired from afar, and it swirls with visual treats in the form of bizarre sets and strange costumes. Still, these don't usurp the action (as they do in the amusing but annoying 1996 Leo DiCaprio star-vehicle version of Romeo and Juliet ). Rather, they highlight the decadence of Rome, the austerity of the countryside, the horror of revenge, etc., as needed. Not just window dressing, these visual elements play integrally into the feel of the piece.
Because of its beauty and the action-filled plot, the film seemed short and fast paced, though it runs over two and a half hours. Of course, your mileage may vary.
Still, it's hard not to get sucked in as Titus plans his revenge and Taymor continues to execute hers, drawing in more actors and severing more body parts before the gory conclusion sets everything aright, if by "aright" we mean "strewn with the bodies of the wicked and just alike." And in the world of Shakespeare, that is, indeed, "aright."
Titus opens Friday at Catalina theater (881-0616).