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USA 1999
Directed by
Julie Taymor
162 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars


Synopsis: General Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) returns to Rome after a long and successful war against the Goths. As part of his victory ritual he orders the sacrifice of the eldest son of captured Goth queen Tamora (Jessica Lange). She, with her two remaining sons vow revenge and through a simple twist of fate is largely successful although at great cost to herself.

Titus Andronicus was one of Shakespeare’s earliest attempts at dynastic tragedy and is far from being one of his best-regarded works. Given that the language is highly mannered whilst the subject matter concerns rape, mutilation, cannibalism and murder it is hardly surprsising that it is rarely staged.

Director and co-producer Taymor adapted this film version from her own stage production and at 162 mins we can safely assume she hasn’t left much out. Therein lies the film’s weakness, for it’s essentially a mash-up of elements in a classically post-modern manner, appropriating a diverse array of more-or-less compatible elements (like the anti-fascistic films of Fellini and Pasolini) but leaving an empty centre at the heart of this film which she does not fill despite all the sound and fury and lush visuals with which she endows it.

If anything she seems to exaggerate the shortcomings of the play as supposedly representing some kind of credible human behaviour (the opening sequence establishes that the story is a reverie but this does not mange to re-frame what follows). For me, it was an ongoing frustration to have to believe that the events depicted were supposed to hinge on the flawed judgement of a battle-hardened professional soldier who would chose a simpering rod-wolloper the unsubtly-named Saturninus (Alan Cumming), who looked-like he wandered out of a 1980s New Romantics band, to be Emperor of Rome.

Stylistically, Taymor uses the production design to caricature the different roles, much as did Baz Lurhmann in Romeo + Juliet, despite utilizing the much greater freedom of the cinema, retaining a staged and highly-stylised feeling. In this respect, Titus is unquestionably impressive. Imagine an army of Vogue set-designers, make-up and wardrobe artists with a considerable budget and penchant for Deco aesthetics (the locations seem often to be swank Deco office buildings) and you’ll get the picture. There are also some effective computer-generated sequences (the one in which Livinia recalls her rape is particularly memorable).

Once he gets a bit of steam up, Anthony Hopkins delivers as Titus, especially in the latter part of the film. Jessica Lange, although, as always, compelling, is hardly convincing as a barbarian queen. Some of the other players seem out of their depth, however.

Both Luhrmann and Peter Greenaway would no doubt love this film but as with their works, it tends to be style over substance. If it had been made 10 years ago, when post-modernity was such a desirable cachet it may have fared better. Today, when the stakes are so high and so many films are visually so spectacular, substance is what counts.




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