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What's your major? Mine was English. I spent four year studying literature, and another two studying poetry specifically. In classes I took on playwriting, screenwriting, poetry, and on Shakespeare himself, I read plenty of the Bard's work. Maybe it's because I was an English major and a dabbler in theater arts, that I love Shakespeare so much. I like seeing his plays, and even reading them is fun for me.
So it was odd for me to learn that this film is a production of his Titus Andronicus, a play I'd heard mentioned, but never read nor seen performed. As central as William is in the canon of English literature, this one play, at least, is somehow not therein. Even the silly piffle called Two Gentlemen of Verona gets more play than Titus in collegiate English classes across the country.
I do remember hearing about Titus once: some professor said it was the most difficult to understand. It was deemed the worst of the body of work. It was extremely violent, graphic to a ridiculous extreme. At any rate, the play was not appreciated. But I think now that Julie Taymor has flying-tackled it into this amazingly vibrant and totally engrossing production, it will be.
Perhaps nobody expected a dark comedy from Shakespeare. Certainly the bulk of his plays fall neatly into three categories: Comedy, Tragedy, and History. This one is certainly tragic, but it is also a historical piece; and gory and grotesque as it is, there are elements of comedy herein. The comedy may be Taymor's doing, or perhaps the author called Shakespeare knew that these extremes of violence would produce the darkest of humors amid the horror. For example, the evil Aaron delivers a rather funny final word to the effect: "If ever I committed a good deed in my life, I here repent it from the bottom of my soul."
Friend and fellow video-lover, fold out the futon, get some munchies ready. Settle in for a heavy and transporting experience. The three-hour tale does not let up for a moment, and if you stay with the film, you will be pulled deeply into Titus' (Anthony Hopkins) descent into misery and bloody vengeance.
Taymor rocks. Shakespeare's piece was written, way back in 16-oh-something, for just such a cinematic treatment as Taymor's it seems. She uses hallucinatory montages and incredible costuming to carry this story vividly to the audience. Her setting is a surreal amalgam of all times between Ancient Rome and the 21st century.
I was reminded of Peter Greenaway (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; Prospero's Books), as this has a somewhat similar look and also includes some sexy shots. But I've always found Greenaway's work off-putting. The flash of his imagery seems self-aggrandizing and--when it comes right down to it--tacky. The nudity in Prospero's Books, for example, seems gratuitous, whereas Taymor's seems needful for the story: The opulence of the royal orgy is interrupted by a violent comeuppance. Greenaway's sense of story is heavy-handed, and I guess Taymor's is too, but she's doing Disney (the Lion King) or ol' Shakesy, so it isn't her own heaviness. Instead, someone else's story fills out her overwhelming visual presentations.
Mrs. Worsted, who majored in art, said that the film reminded her of the work of Peter Joel Whitkin (I hope I'm spelling his name correctly). PJ photographed freakshows, dead bodies, macabre scenes, she told me.
The Bloody Innards of the Tale
Titus Andronicus is a Roman hero, returned from a victorious war against the Goths with their queen, Tamora (Jessica Lange), and her three sons captive. Precise choreography with rhythmic, slow stomping make a strong audio/visual impression of Rome's army. Titus buries his sons who were slain in battle and ritually sends them to the afterlife by sacrificing Tamora's eldest son in spite of her pleas for mercy. She vows revenge and soon gets into the position to deliver it....
Caesar is dead, and the throne is open. Caesar's two sons, Saturnine and Bob (not Bob, but it does start with a "B") vie for the throne; however, the Roman "repvblic" has voted Titus himself to the throne. Old Mr. War Hero doesn't want the responsibility, though, so he carelessly flings the throne to Saturnine, the elder son, even though that cat is clearly a ninny.
Saturninny proves his weakness almost immediately. He demands Titus' daughter, Lavinia as his queen despite the fact that she's already betrothed to his brother, and late competitor for the throne...Bradicus, Billicus, um, Burtibus. Well, anyway, Mr. B. can't play that. He and Titus' surviving sons flee with the young girl, causing Titus to lose his honor in Saturnine's eyes. To win back favor, Titus presents the captured Goth queen to him. She casts her magical feminine wiles on Emperor Doofus, and he spontaneously declares her his queen. Now Titus got trouble: He's the one who killed the new empress' first born!
Tragedy after tragedy befall Titus, perpetrated by the scheming Tamora and Aaron, her moorish lover and a sworn evil-doer.
Do you feel a little queasy? Does that seem like an awful lot of limb lopping? It is. It's major violence and Taymor doesn't back away from its portrayal. And there's something much more disturbing about this brand of violence than that seen in a standard shoot-em-up like Die Hard or Rambo Umpteen: Showers of Blood Vengeance. Without the benefit of guns, all violence must be perpetrated by hand, person to person; and in the cases where the victim lives, the scars are plain, lasting evidence of, to put it mildly, man's inhumanity to man.
Vengeance is the main theme here. Titus appears mad, but in spite of his crushing grief (very well embodied by the riveting Hopkins), he manages to hatch a grisly revenge upon Saturnine and Tamora. This includes (ought I tell you?) slaughtering her two sons and then....
No, you're going to have to see this for yourself. All I can tell you is that the climax serves justice in the extreme. Misery is ended; punishment is meted; and as a viewer, I felt an awful sense of rightness and an anxious joy to see such bloody payback for such bloody crimes. In the denouement, a Pyrrhic peace settles.
I hope this summary will give you just enough schema to help
you understand as you watch, but it's pretty clear what's going
on for the most part. The really amazing thing is that the hugeness
of the play's emotional content, from misery to repulsion to
justice, is matched head-on by Taymor's movie-making. She delivers
it with a boom! If this play is now understood enough to enter
the canon, I'd imagine Taymor has been single-handedly responsible.
Bravo from this sleep-deprived reviewer.