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Movie Review: 'Titus'

Friday, April 21, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

In "Titus," director Julie Taymor sets out a sumptuous visual feast. But, in some ways, it proves as cannibalistic as the hunger for revenge that literally chops up and spits out the characters, devouring whole families in its gruesome maw.


RATING: R for strong violent and sexual images

STARRING: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange

DIRECTOR: Julie Taymor.

CRITIC'S CALL: 2 1/2 stars.


The movie re-creates Taymor's 1995 theatrical version of Shakespeare's grisliest play, "Titus Andronicus," which begins with a human sacrifice and ends with the 16th-century equivalent of fava beans and a nice chianti. One of the movie's more obvious maneuvers is to cast Hannibal Lecter himself, Anthony Hopkins, in the title role.

Of course, humankind's penchant for butchery is timeless. So, therefore, is Taymor's movie. These Romans drive chariots but also cars and motorcycles, inhabit both ancient ruins and modern buildings, play jazz at their orgies, address the people over microphones (labeled SPQR News) but employ ancient armor and weapons.

Their costumes (designed by two-time Oscar winner Milena Canonero) range from togas and breastplates to ultra-spiffy jazz-age fashions. The sons of the Goth Queen play video games and wreak havoc with loud and violent abandon, as nihilistic as the most lunatic fringe of our own disaffected youth.

One of her key metaphors comes at the very beginning, when a young boy plays at his kitchen table with toy soldiers, working himself into a frenzy until there is an explosion at the window. He is carried into the arena, where his toy soldiers have come to life as Roman legions, who have returned from conquering the Goths under their general Titus Andronicus. Many of his own sons have died in the war. As it turns out, they are probably the lucky ones.

Titus sows the seeds of his own destruction by ignoring the pleas of the captive Goth Queen, Tamora (Jessica Lange, who more than holds her own with the Brits in the cast) and ordering the ritual sacrifice of her first-born son. Offered the post of emperor by his grateful nation, Titus turns it down and throws his support to the smug, decadent Saturnine (Alan Cumming, looking like a cross between Adolf Hitler and Pee-wee Herman), even though his daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser) is betrothed to the good and wise Bassianus (James Frain).

Saturnine empowers Tamora, who proceeds to carry out her revenge upon Titus. Meanwhile, her Moor lover, Aaron (Harry Lennix), enacts his own evil agenda. Titus, the old fool, must be driven to madness before he can fight back.

Taymor borrows influences wherever it suits her purpose. The movie contains unmistakable echoes of the fascist allegory in the Ian McKellen version of "Richard III." At other times, when Titus' supporters in hats and long black coats are walking purposefully down a narrow street of brick buildings, it looks like a Fellini movie. At times, the movie explodes into abstract images the director says are meant to portray the interior landscapes of the mind. The tone can change from scene to scene -- brooding one moment, a burlesque the next.

This "Titus" is as theatrical, then, as its origins -- histrionic and emotional, exaggerated and showy. Maybe Taymor figured that if Shakespeare's play goes over the top, her interpretation must do the same.

Or maybe Taymor is simply showing off. The movie tries too hard to get in your face, dancing as fast as it can in an effort to impress us with its undeniable visual flair and ingenuity. The ideas simply can't keep up.

I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. Shakespeare's play is like Saturnine, ambitious but weak. The movie is like Tamora, strong and manipulative (Taymor/Tamora? Hmmm). There are ideas here, but the bread tends to get swallowed up by the circuses.

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