William Shakespeare’s blood-soaked tragedy gets the aggressive visualization treatment in Julie Taymor’s big screen debut. To watch Titus is to discover a film that argues that the limit does not exist for what constitutes “over the top.” This doesn’t just shake the rafters, nor does it blow the roof off of the place, because there is no foundations for the film to destroy. Titus is a film of uncompromising beauty, sensationalism, and obnoxious pretentions, and it must be applauded for having the courage to go beyond broke into something grander.
None of this is to say that Titus is an entirely effective or even coherent whole. It’s very much not, but there are moments of grand beauty that are equal to the moments of near camp or overly zealous symbolic heft. The opening of the film, a young boy in a picturesque 1950s home playing war with his action figures and bits of food, is a harbinger of things to come with this youth serving a multi-purpose function. This innocent is supposed to be our witness to the carnage and depravity, but this idea is half-formed and more distracting than anything. His eventual reveal as Titus’ grandson and a supporting player in the action is something of a muted response.
Taymor has said that this youth was symbolic, a silent, observing symbol of the younger generations and their inheritance of violence, war, and tension, but it doesn’t work. If Titus is supposed to be something of a screed on the evils and perils of these things, then it completely undermines that point with its addiction to aesthetic and synesthetic overload. Titus practically licks its lips in its various depictions of gore, and by keeping them so colorful and artfully orchestrated, the audience is left at a remove from the realities and visceral reactions of the vengeance.
There’s a certain reality that sinks in about Taymor’s work when you watch Titus, and it is this: for all of her strengths in creating visual splendor, she seems completely disengaged with narrative. The faults of Titus as a play carry over to Titus as a film, but a better director might have wrestled with the material in a more satisfactory manner. The play contains no hero, no moral, just a series of violent delights having violent ends. If Taymor wanted to call attention to the audience’s consumptive tendencies of violence-as-entertainment, then perhaps she should have dialed back on the series of ornate pageantry on display.
The rape and mutilation of Lavina (Laura Fraser) by Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) and Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a perfect example of this dichotomy. This moment should be an emotional reckoning where we as the audience feel the terror and anguish that she suffers, but we don’t here. Taymor has Fraser wear a deer’s head as a hat while Rhys and Meyers lunge and transforming into tigers and cheesy heavy-metal rock music roars in the background. This moment is all at once absolutely beautiful, completely laughable in its lack of subtlety, and maddeningly literal in its destruction of virginal innocence.
Where Titus and Taymor excel is in its uniformly strong acting ensemble. Naturally, a player like Anthony Hopkins is not a surprise in how well he sinks his chops into the Bard’s poetry. His lilting Welsh tones caress the words so wonderfully that he can make Titus’ eventual dissent into mania and madness something quite elegiac. But it’s the two American actors who provide the best performances. Jessica Lange gives one of her great performances that depend on her ability to stop-and-start with emotional alacrity. Lange’s Tamora, Queen of the Goths is a sleeper waiting for the perfect time to burn everything down in revenge. Even better is Harry Lennix as Aaron, one of the outsider players in a Shakespeare tragedy that is slowly revealed as a major contributor to the destruction. Aaron is something of an “angry black man” prototype, but Lennix tries to invest him with some soul and understandable fury in his machinations and nearly pulls the trick off.
Titus is a grand production that is worth the journey it takes you on, even if the end results is a muddied, complicated imperfect work. Taymor’s visual splendor keeps things continually interesting, even when it contradicts or turns the play’s meanings and dialog prosaic. It’s an uneven but good debut from an artist obsessed with using every multimedia tool she can get her hands on to bring her ideas to life.