TITUS (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violent and Sexual Images

Titus poster

Directed by: Julie Taymor

Written by: Julie Taymor

(based on the play TITUS ANDRONICUS by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Harry Lennix, Angus Macfadyen, Alan Cumming, Laura Fraser, James Frain, Colm Feore, Johnathan Rhys-Meyers, Matthew Rhys, Kenny Doughty, Blake Ritson & Colin Wells

When one thinks of Shakespeare, the first plays that usually pop into mind are ROMEO & JULIET or HAMLET. While those are without a doubt two of his most popular works and most of his catalogue are considered masterpieces, the man also had to make a living. Sometimes, that meant appealing to what new entertainment trend (plays were the equivalent of movies in Shakespeare’s time) was popular. Violent revenge stories were in and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus was a response saying something along the lines of “You want blood? You got it!” This exploitative grotesque tale of madness and sorrow was debated by critics as not even being penned by Shakespeare as it was so disturbing. However, it was indeed from the mind of the most celebrated playwright and Julie Taymor’s 1999 adaptation is probably going to be the only movie based on this work.

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Titus Andronicus is a revered Roman general who has conquered the Goths. Following a post-war ritual, Titus executes the proudest warrior among his defeated enemy and draws the ire of scorned Queen Tamora. Titus declines an offer for position as Emperor of Rome and wants to live the rest of his days out in peace. In a cruel twist of fate, Tamora is made wife to Saturninus (the newly crowned corrupt Emperor). Using her limitless power and untouchable status, Tamora and her lover Aaron enact an intricately painful plan of revenge on Titus’s loved ones. Titus won’t take this lying down and things go from bad to horrible for everybody involved. Revenge is met with worse revenge and by the end of this movie, it will be a miracle if anybody survives. The details in the plot are much more complicated than I’ve just made them out to be, but giving any of the twists and turns (of which there are plenty) away might spoil the fun for some viewers.

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The first thing that needs to be stated upfront is that TITUS isn’t a traditional adaptation of a Shakespeare play. Following a similar pattern to 1996’s ROMEO + JULIET, this adaptation of Shakespeare’s work is not set in the intended time period or place. Yet it isn’t fully set in the present either. Instead, this world is a mix of modern technology (cars, guns, arcade machines, pool tables, etc.) and ancient Rome (Colosseum-like structures, paved walkways, swords, armor, etc.). It’s a strange blend that offers slight distancing to the audience from the barbaric deeds being showcased. The plot is still devastating in many ways (expect a bit of recovery time afterwards), but plays out exceeding well. Running at almost three full hours, there’s hardly a dull moment.

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Besides the impeccable Anthony Hopkins (in full lunatic force as Titus), the cast is filled with many performers that may be more than familiar to many of current TV viewers. Matthew Rhys (seen in THE AMERICANS), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (THE TUDORS), and Jessica Lange (AMERICAN HORROR STORY) play the main antagonists of the story in Tamora and her two sons. Oddly enough, the flamboyant Alan Cumming plays the ever-infuriated Emperor. Angus MacFadyen stars as Titus’s eldest son and I find it hilarious that a victim from SAW III acted in a Shakespeare film. That is truly awesome. The always underrated Colm Feore is given time to shine as Titus’s brother, though he mostly comes out as the often-ignored voice of reason in his well-spoken role.

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Besides the extravagantly strange set design, another element that thankfully makes the disturbing content more tolerable is a wicked sense of dark humor. Some of these oddball moments launch TITUS from being wholly dark into downright entertaining. There is plenty of violence, gore and sex to be had though. Tamora’s main act of vengeance involves one of the movie’s most horrifying scenes that is shot beautifully, making the gruesome sight look stunning. This is very much a tragedy from Shakespeare and the movie is indeed very sad, dark and bleak. The three-hour running time may never be boring, but it does beat the viewer’s emotions down into a fine paste. This isn’t a bad quality at all, because the movie greatly accomplishes what it set out to do. It’s also one of the most imaginative visions of Shakespeare ever made.

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For fans of the play and Shakespeare in general, TITUS is sure to delight as much as a story centered around madness, murder, sacrifice, revenge and tragedy can. This film does justice to the writer’s most overlooked play. The execution is entirely original, though sometimes the style can be a little too over-the-top. It’s definitely not for everybody, but there are bound to be those who love it (including myself). This is Shakespeare unlike you’ve ever seen him before and likely will ever see him again.

Grade: A

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