When I was first approached to view this film’s DVD/video release and offer my comments in writing, I was a bit apprehensive, since I am a theatre educator by profession and not a film critic. At the time, I was unaware of the film's director or cast (my head having been in the sand for the summer), but I consented anyway, and hunkered down to the beginning-of-the semester tasks without giving it another thought.
To say the least, I was pleasantly surprised a few days later when I got the package in my mail, and discovered the impressive list of people involved in the film, mainly Julie Taymor (director), Anthony Hopkins (Titus), Jessica Lange Tamora), and Alan Cumming (Saturninus). The impressive cast, along with Taymor's equally impressive record of stage productions, made me eager to give the show a serious read. I use the theatrical terms on purpose here, since Titus is in many ways a theatrical piece. True, it is a film by definition of medium and technique, yet it is based on Taymor's previously staged (and acclaimed!) theatrical production. More importantly, the power of a theatrical vision has made its way into the film, and survived the translation well.
Shakespeare is not easy to do. There are concerns not only of coming up with a visual production that will complement and communicate a 400-year-old play's story, characters, and ideas; there is also the daunting task of working with actors to process the verbage--the structured poetry that somehow manages to be spontaneous dialogue. Taymor has taken some important steps unusual for film production that helps make this play come alive, yes as film, but also as theatre.
Probably the most important is rehearsal. As a theatre person, I simply cannot fathom acting or directing Shakespeare (or most any play of any quality for that matter) without detailed and extensive rehearsal, which films rarely have and most actors crave. Taymor rehearsed her actors, and the DVD shares some of that rehearsal process with the rest of us. The result is a knowledge of the process which illuminates its result--a perspective that well-designed DVD content makes possible. The rehearsal of a seduction scene between Jessica Lange's Tamora and Harry Lennix's Aaron is particularly insightful.
Other material on the DVD release that makes it good for an educator (and/or student) is Taymor's Q&A with film students at Columbia University after a screening of the film. Here she shares much of her conceptual thinking, which I find invaluable for student directors and actors. Also of great value to theatre and film folk are interviews with actors and their underscored commentary. Anthony Hopkins provides most of the scene-specific commentary, and in the "Making Of" segment shares his misgivings as well as his determination to tackle Shakespeare -- great fodder for aspiring actors (I think he does an admirable job in the end, by the way).
To begin with, let me praise Julie Taymor for not subjugating the production to her vision. There have been a few unremarkable, yet "innovative" (or so we are told) Shakespeare films over the years. Their conceptual approaches borrow from the more-or-less standard theatrical practices of the late twentieth century, and in my opinion generally to much less effect than on the stage. For me Kenneth Brannagh is one of the few directors whose Shakespeare films have been able to capture a sense of contemporaneity and hold my interest, even when the Concept is rather mild (as in Much Ado). Now I also have Julie Taymor and her Titus.
Taymor takes a postmodern approach to the presentation of the story--if the term postmodern has any sense left to it these days. I use the term to encapsulate that family of interpretive decisions that are multiple rather than singular, that complement through contrast rather than consistency, and that communicate in a contemporary (mainly visual) language--all of which she does to great dramatic effect.
First, the frame--Taymor takes a minor character who appears later in the play, the young grandson of Titus, and introduces him at the beginning of the film, alone in his fifties-style kitchen, eating his breakfast and venting his destructive energies on his toys. Adults burst into the room, and remove him to the Roman coliseum, where marching soldiers with short swords growing out of their arms in place of hands dominate the scene. The boy becomes an observer to the rest of the play, lurking behind a column or through a window, and ends the play.
The nightmarish vision of automaton sword-soldiers brings up a second theme or motif: hands (or the lack thereof). There is of course a textual basis for this--both Titus and his daughter lose their hands--but Taymor amplifies this vision to include a large stone hand lying like a ruin in the abandoned Coliseum, and above all, a striking and surreal vision of Lavinia (Laura Fraser) as she is found after her rape and mutilation, with wintry branches stuck in the ends of her arms as hands (complemented by the blood pouring from her mouth where her tongue used to be).
The postmodernity of Taymor's concept allows her to use costume, setting, and soundtrack in a way that communicates through symbol and iconography rather than a "consistent" recasting of the play in a specific historical "period." It is set in Italy, but 20th century cars and fascist-inspired architecture coexist happily with swords and armor. My favorite costume/makeup choice is the Goth Queen's arm-length tattoos--which has a basis both in antiquity and contemporary trends in fashion (There are Goths and goths).
Two of the film's strongest scenes are also the two for which the play is most renown: when Titus, seeking revenge on the Goth Queen, kills her sons then feeds them to her in a pie before killing her. The execution scene has more than a few intertextual references to Silence of the Lambs, which may be Anthony Hopkins' most compelling film character. The dinner is then served in a very Italian gourmet fashion, with appropriately (even shockingly) evocative music.
Because of the film's unconventional approach (unconventional for film, remember--Peter Greenaway excepted), the first 30 minutes or so may be difficult for many to stay with--there may be a little too much complexity for some to figure out while trying to process Shakespearean language. This is not helped by the delivery of some of the more lengthy monologues: they often could use a little less subtle approach and more spontaneity. It's hard to fault actors for this, though, since Taymor pays such attention to detail elsewhere in the film. I must admit that on a second viewing, it was much more interesting. I think this is a film that should be seen more than once--this is certainly true in terms of absorbing the details of the film's many and varied themes-concepts. However, I cannot stress enough that once one is conditioned to the film's approach, it really comes alive. (In the theatre, I have often experienced this same problem with Shakespeare--the really good stuff comes after the intermission).
Not only is the play's imagery astoundingly rich, the actors handle the language well most of the time -- although Hopkins could apply a bolder and more varied thought-to-thought approach in some of the earlier lengthy monologues, as he does so well in the "execution" scene. Harry Lennix (Aaron) and Angus MacFadyen (Lucius) share a very compelling presence and facility of language; their scene together in Act V is appropriately bombastic and intense (This is a compliment). The music throughout the film is very compelling and stylistically varied -- the DVD devotes much space to the its composition and arrangement.
In short, see the film twice, and arrange to bring it to class. It is a wonderful teaching and learning tool, and even civilians will find the look behind the scenes interesting. It also happens to be a good movie.
For more information, see the Fox Home Entertainment web page the Internet Movie Database, and more importantly, read the play!
Ken McCoy September 6, 2000