The opening scene of Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999) is just about the perfect encapsulation of the film itself. A young boy sits at a kitchen table, playing with toy soldiers and action figures, violently smashing them into one another. Eventually, he’s dumped a bottle of ketchup and a carton of milk all over the table, creating a messy tableau of entangled bodies, bathed in unfounded chaos.
If this scene isn’t Taymor’s self-portrait, then such a work doesn’t exist. In her other films, but especially here in her directorial debut, she’s a filmmaker who exults in careening bodies, objects and shots. Cuts don’t fit together like puzzle pieces; they crash into one another like ill-fitting toy bricks, brought into alignment by the sheer force of their assembler. Taymor’s maximalism thrives on chaos. She’s unlike a filmmaker such as Ken Russell, who frequently went over-the-top, but generally in service of his central theme. Taymor’s more of a “throw everything at the screen and see what sticks” kind of filmmaker.
These qualities make her a pretty good candidate to direct the film version of William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a bloody horror show generally considered to be one of the Bard’s lesser works, sometimes verging on hysterical self-parody. Shakespeare’s play is rarely considered to be great art, and Taymor’s film certainly isn’t, but it’s also never boring. Taymor finds enough variety in her visual assaults to prevent the film from becoming monotonous in its excess.
Taymor consistently weds the modern and the ancient in her anachronistic vision, and that begins straight away, as the soldier-playing boy (Osheen Jones) in the first scene is transported back to the latter days of the Roman Empire, where he turns into the grandson of Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins). Titus has just returned victorious from a battle against the Goths, and he’s brought their queen, Tamora (Jessica Lange), back as a trophy.
Titus may be bloodthirsty — within the first 20 minutes of the film, he’s killed one of Tamora’s sons and one of his own — but he’s not power-hungry, deferring an offer to become emperor and nominating the fulsome Saturninus (Alan Cumming) in his place. Saturninus decides he wants Lavinia (Laura Fraser), Titus’s daughter, as his queen, but she refuses, leading him to pick Tamora as an act of defiance against the Andronicus family. Now, with his mortal enemy installed as the Roman Queen, Titus finds himself and his family the targets of a number of gruesome attacks. But Titus’s capability for revenge is vast.
The film’s relative faithfulness to the source material is one of its saving graces, as it keeps the sequence of events fairly coherent. For all of its stylistic flourishes, this isn’t a film that could have gotten by on style alone — it’s far too scattered. Some of Taymor’s imagery is incredibly striking; the early scene of Titus’s army returning from war, clay-caked and walking in bizarre lockstep, sets the tone for the disturbing, humanity-shredding events yet to come. But her attempts to meld traditional imagery with a punk-rock aesthetic end up looking like half-committed, pale imitations of Derek Jarman or Alex Cox. Some of the film’s vulgar energy is nicely reminiscent of Pasolini, particularly in a scene where the world’s most mellow orgy is interrupted by a bow-and-arrow attack. Then again, that energy is sometimes directed into hilariously stupid scenes, like when Lavinia identifies her attackers while melting into a blue-tinged acid trip, complete with leaping tigers.
Hopkins has sufficient screen gravitas to not be overwhelmed by the visual anarchy that surrounds him. Still, he perhaps plays the role too straight, only embracing something campier in the film’s late sequences, especially in a scene where he devises a grotesque cannibalistic trick and revels like Hannibal Lecter once the truth is revealed. The film’s best performance belongs to Harry Lennix, who played Tamora’s Moor lover Aaron in Taymor’s initial stage adaptation and reprises the role here. Lennix is totally convincing in his offhanded, freewheeling cruelty. It’s a performance that simultaneously embraces the absurdity and the horror of the adaptation — fun but not superfluous.
Titus is a worthy addition to the cinematic Shakespeare repertoire, if only because it’s the only significant adaptation of this particular play. In the 15 years since the film’s release, Taymor hasn’t done much to counteract her skeptics’ opinion of her work, either on the screen or the stage, but this first outing can be just winningly demented enough to work enough of the time.
Twilight Time brings Titus to Blu-ray in a limited-to-3,000-copies edition that presents the film in 1080p and a roughly 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Twilight Time can only work with the transfers given them to them by the studios, but here’s a case where one wishes they would’ve pushed back on Fox. From the opening, slightly washed out Fox Searchlight intro, it’s clear that the transfer was sourced from a dated master. Speckling and dirt are a problem here and there, but the real killer is how smeary and muddy the image looks. Fine detail is not distinct, clarity is inconsistent and contrast is muddled. This rarely looks better than an upconverted DVD, and not a particularly impressive DVD transfer at that.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is a much more obvious upgrade over DVD, presenting Elliot Goldenthal’s score crisply and cleanly, and spreading out the film’s action-heavy sequences nicely through the surrounds. The track seems a little on the quieter side, particularly in dialogue-heavy scenes, but it’s a nice mix overall. A 2.0 DTS-HD track is also presented as an option.
The disc includes a selection of extras that have all been ported over from Fox’s DVD release. They are:
- Three audio commentaries. One with Taymor, one with composer Goldenthal and one with Hopkins and Lennix.
- A nearly hour-long making-of documentary featuring interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.
- A question-and-answer session with Taymor following a screening of the film at Columbia University.
- A brief featurette on the film’s nightmare sequences.
- A collection of theatrical trailers and TV spots.
- An isolated score track.
- A booklet featuring an essay by Julie Kirgo
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, the Twilight Time’s Titus Blu-ray rates:
The Film (out of ****): **1/2
Film Elements Sourced: *1/2
Video Transfer: *1/2
New Extra Features: N/A
Extra Features Overall: ***
1999 / Color / 2.35:1 / 162 min / $29.95
Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.