Titus (1999)

Titus, Julie Taymor’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is a surreal, sometimes comical film with strong performances from Antony Hopkins as the titular character, Alan Cumming as Saturninus and Jessica Lange as Tamora, queen of the Goths. Shakespeare’s original play is a revenge tragedy, with the emphasis on revenge. With its excessive, gratuitous violence one could say it was designed to titillate its audience when they could just as easily have visited the gallows to watch a hanging for entertainment. In that sense it was probably pg 13 by comparison. Is it a horror film? Well I think it can qualify for one, it certainly has enough gruesome material and the cover art for the 1999 production, Titus Andronicus (not to be confused with Taymor’s version) certainly indicates that this can be played up.

Apart from its unrelenting brutality, what marks the play out is the fact that it was one of Shakespeare’s first and therefore it displays some awkwardness in terms of plot development (Lucius for example suddenly commanding an army of Goths who have been previously defeated by his father). However, a youthful energy and enthusiasm for its gruesome, chaotic action also defines it. In addition you get several themes and characters that would be developed in his later works. For example, Aaron the Moor predates the Moorish general Othello while Titus’s preference for retirement over governance and the price he pays for it anticipates King Lear’s disastrous decision to give his lands to his daughters Goneril and Regan. Similarly, whether Titus is mad or not by the end of the play is a theme Shakespeare would use six years later to great effect in Hamlet.

It’s interesting that this play fell out of favour in the 18th century until the 1950s when it experienced  revival, with critics noting how it related to a post-Holocaust world in terms of its nihilistic violence. This idea of the play being a 20th century work written in the 16th is given further credence when you consider that the South Park episode in which Cartman feeds Scott Tenorman his parents inversely mirrors the events in the play. So essentially it was too hardcore for the delicate sensibilities of the 18th century literary establishment and those of succeeding generations. And why is this? Well the plot details the Roman general Titus, who following a successful campaign against the Goths has captured their queen, Tamora. Titus being a stickler to Roman law and custom, and also peeved that he lost 25 sons in battle, has her son disembowelled. Foolishly for him, he refuses the position of Emperor in favour of Saturninus who then weds Tamora after taking a fancy to her. Tamora is righteously angry and hatches a plot for revenge with her surviving sons Chiron and Demetrius and her Moor lover, Aaron. They frame Titus’s sons, which leads to their execution and Chiron and Demetrius carry out the rape and mutilation of Lavinia. Titus exacts revenge when he tricks Demetrius and Chiron into believing he is mad, captures them and bakes them in a pie which he serves up to Tamora, Saturninus and a host of assorted guests. So it’s not exactly the gentle, refined Romeo and Juliet or the subtle philosophical drama of Hamlet (which incidentally also ends in a bloodbath). Its violence is off putting to many due to its tone and presentation. King Lear for example is a much crueller play but it’s not as graphic.

Taymor taps into the energy of the play through a fusion of theatricality, colourful, idiosyncratic visuals and a conflation of fashions from different historical epochs. The film abounds with a sense of razzmatazz glitz which brings to mind the roaring 20s. Indeed this period reference is just one of many which reflect the ambivalence of the historical setting of the play; we are presented with an alternate history in which the Roman Empire never fell. So we have Coliseums, arcade machines, Mussolini-fascist Italy era references, 1940s microphones and World War 2 trench coats. This mix of style creates a surreal, dynamic and ebullient effect. Furthermore, Taymor doesn’t shy away from auteur style sequences. You get some pretty weird symbolic imagery with the rape of Lavinia and the executions of Titus’s sons. I sometimes thought the production quality here was a little bit cheap and amateurish although that’s probably more to do with technical limitations when it was made. Nonetheless, they are highly effective. This also goes for the image of Lavinia attempting to speak with a torrent of blood flowing from her mouth. The image is essentially aesthetic horror. It’s very artistically done and I think it relates back to the sense of aestheticism in the play which comes across when Marcus attempts to rationalise what has been done to her in highly poetic language. Her film abounds with visual signifiers, from Titus initially wearing armour to convey his military standing and seeming invulnerability to him dressed as a chef at the end which evokes his vulnerability (at least as Taymor describes).

In terms of the performances Cumming does a good job of portraying Saturninus as a lightweight, supercilious twit who is going to make a mess of things. Tamora is the perfect villain for Titus and played with a weird sense of allure by Jessica Lange (maybe it’s the gold breastplate armour she wears). In any case her charms work on Saturninus when he weds her instead of Lavinia. She is also devious and merciless in equal measure and to make things worse, it’s implied in the film that she’s had incestuous relations with her two sons. Chiron and Demetrius are portrayed very effectively by Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Matthew Rhys as hyperactive, homicidal delinquent hooligans that just happen to enjoy wealth and power. We also have Aaron, a sadistic psychopath who takes a euphoric glee in the suffering he inflicts on others. This is none more evident than when he has Titus cut off his own hand to stay the executions of Martius and Quintus. And then we have these lines which are incredible if not for evoking the depth and purity of his evil:

Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,/And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,/ Even when their sorrows almost were forgot; /And on their skins, as on the bark of trees, /Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,/ ‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’ /Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things/As willingly as one would kill a fly, /And nothing grieves me heartily indeed/But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

This dialogue could be straight out of a horror film about a serial killer, so as can be seen, Aaron is one very sick individual indeed although he gets his comeuppance when he’s buried up to the head and left to die by Lucius. He also has one redeeming trait, the concern he shows for the son he has with Tamora. Taymor uses this element in Shakespeare’s plot; having him released from a cage and carried by young Lucius into the rising sun, a sense of hope is conveyed after the hellish spectacles and as such it works pretty well. In fact that’s the single biggest difference with the play, young Lucius is afforded a much more prominent role. He’s an active participant in the violence yet at the end you can see that he rejects it. You could say Taymor’s directing style and use of explanatory sequences for some of the more inexplicable events of the play improve upon its otherwise clumsy aspects.

Antony Hopkin’s casting as Titus is probably a nod to his iconic role in Silence of the Lambs as Hannibal Lecter though I doubt that’s in any way a primary reason for why he was selected for the role. There’s one particular exchange between Titus and his brother Marcus which is really powerful. Marcus presents Titus with his mutilated daughter, stating “This was thy daughter.” Hopkins gives just the right emphasis to convey his unconditional love and sternness of heart which has served him well as a general on the field “Why Marcus, so she is.”

I was hoping throughout the film that all this suffering and violence would lead to a cathartic and profound existential realisation but there is none which plays back into the idea that this work is one of Shakespeare’s less well developed and one which appeals to a twentieth century audience. If there is a theme to be identified it’s the escalating nature of cyclical violence. In this respect it could almost be a comedy. Titus screws over Tamora by killing Alarbus, who gets back at him by having his sons executed and his daughter raped, leading him to devise a form of revenge that will best hers by baking her sons in a pie. Again I reminded of the Cartman, Scott Tenorman episode. But it’s not just in interpreting the events of the film in this way that makes it a comedy. That theatricality I mentioned is present throughout the whole film which plays into a general sense of deliberate campiness at times. Additionally Hopkins plays Titus with a manic glee at the end with the chef’s garb which really adds to the comic absurdity of the scene. Furthermore, comedy is intrinsic to the play itself. Titus and his brother carrying off the heads of his sons while the handless Lavinia holds Titus’s hand in her mouth is basically a savage farce.

As with the play, this film is generically hard to classify. Is it a tragedy? Yes insofar as we have a “great” man (by Roman standards) brought low by his  arrogance and events too horrific for him to keep his sanity. If anything he works with a kind of hypersanity reminiscent of Batman’s Joker with the baking Tamora’s sons in a pie scheme; it’s deluded, extremely viscous yet executed with a chilling clarity of thought and calculation. Is it a revenge story? Most definitely yes. Is it horror though? Well I’m not sure horror as a genre existed in Shakespeare’s time but he certainly anticipates it with this tale of cannibalism, disembowelment, mutilation, decapitation, death by torturous burial and the like. Although there are moments of humour this is not a frivolous, funny haha film, it’s a fairly hardcore revenge flick not unlike something Quentin Tarantino would concoct. Taymor’s directing style gives one of Shakespeare’s most interesting plays a depth and flair which one could argue it originally lacked. It’s intriguing, surreal and worth a watch.

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