US/UK 2000

dir./scr. Julie Taymor (based on play Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare)

cin. Luciano Tovoli

stars Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming

162 minutes!

Trying too hard is the major error committed by many first-time directors, and theatre star Julie Taymor proves no exception with her debut, Titus. But this is such a gleefully over-the-top, anything-goes kind of picture that she manages to get away with even her most glaringly misjudged excesses, delivering a triumphantly bold spectacle that makes the superficially similar Gladiator look very small beer in comparison.

The film opens with arguably Taymor’s biggest mis-step, a modern-day prologue in which a young boy smashes up his toys at the kitchen table – not the most subtle of introductions to an examination of war, madness, masculinity and death. But then the kid, like the audience, is suddenly plonked down in the middle of a vast Roman amphitheatre, and the film clicks into high gear with an arresting credits sequence of robotic soldiers marching noisily forward out of the shadows.

At their head is Titus (Hopkins), an elderly but still potent general arrival triumphant in Rome after conquering the barbarous Goths and taking their Queen Tamora (Lange) prisoner, along with her servant Aaron (Harry Lennix) and sons Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Myers) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys). In the first of numerous parallels with Ridley Scott’s hit, Titus is asked to become Emperor following the death of the previous incumbent, Caesar, but hands the laurels to the latter’s flamboyant but lightweight son, Saturninus (Cumming). This sets off a convoluted, extraordinarily bloody sequence of events which culminate in a cannibalistic orgy of death and destruction.

While Gladiator was fatally marred by the way its characters were reduced to cardboard representations of good and evil, Titus has a more satisfyingly ambiguous, mature approach. This is in many ways an alien world, and the people in it are not always easy to classify, sympathise with, like or to despise. Even Saturninus, roughly equivalent to Gladiator‘s Commodus, is jauntily and decadently naughty rather than malignant, and Alan Cumming brings him to such quiveringly delightful life he’s always a pleasure to watch – Joaquin Phoenix’s serviceable turn pales in comparison. Cumming’s is a movie-stealing performance, but he’s at least matched by the solid underplaying of Angus MacFadyen as Titus’s son Lucius, who rises in stature throughout proceedings to emerge, somewhat unexpectedly, as the most pivotal and crucial character of all.

But it’s a terrific, well-directed ensemble cast – for me, Hopkins was definitely the second-best Hannibal Lecter behind Brian Cox, but squares the scores as Titus, bringing a new edge to a role famously revived by Cox in Deborah Warner’s early-90s production. Lange’s wide vocal range gives depth and humanity to the scheming Tamora, while Laura Fraser, as Titus’s grotesquely ill-treated daughter, provides further evidence of her star-in-embryo status, especially in the latter section of the film when her character is deprived of both tongue and hands.

Taymor handles the cast exceptionally well (with the glaring exception of the young Osheen Jones as the irritating kid, a character whose function is, for most of the picture, woefully unclear) and her adaptation brings a surprising amount of humour out of an unusually bloody and grim play – but she seems slightly less at home in the director’s chair. The production design is remarkable (and subtly detailed – watch for Titus’s face pinned to a dart board in the background of Tamora’s sons’ lair) but isn’t matched by Taymor’s relatively pedestrian use of the camera. The harder she tries, the less effective she becomes – there are hallucinatory sequences full of bizarre imagery that are absurd rather than sublime – and she fares much better when she cools off and keeps things simple. The most cinematic sequence of all is a very plain evening scene at a crossroads, with the actors arranged like chess pieces among the distant, ruined buildings of a ragged, chaotic world.

At close on two and three quarter hours, Titus may daunt those who, like me, aren’t particular fans of Shakespeare either on the stage or on screen. But Taymor’s impeccable understanding of pace means her film never drags – there’s always something horrific or bizarre going on, the momentum building to a quick-paced zinger of a pay-off scene that includes the striking spectacle of Cumming being dragged along a sumptuous dining table by a furious MacFadyen. Then there’s a satisfying coda and an impressive, very long final shot to wrap things up in style: a fitting end to a powerful cinematic journey.