Celebrated Broadway director Julie Taymor staged Shakespeare’s first play Titus Andronicus in 1995 as a surrealistic fusion of costumes and settings from the late Roman empire to Jazz Age fascist Italy. Titus is her cinematic adaptation of the play, a film that evokes Leni Reifenstahl and Pink Floyd: The Wall as much as it evokes Elizabethan tragedy and the Bard’s twisted black comedy.
Victorious Roman general, Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) returns home to Rome after defeating the Goths in a long, protracted, bloody, muddy, brutal engagement. As required by religious law, his first act of triumph is to ritually sacrifice the eldest son of his prisoner Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Jessica Lange). She pleads with Titus to spare her child, but Titus is having none of this, being “the lawfulest man” in Rome.
(In English class, this would have been pointed out as his “fatal flaw.”)
When petulant sissy-boy, Saturninus (Alan Cumming) is declared Emperor, he appoints Tamora his queen, just to spite his brother and whoever else might be spited. Tamora, her bratty sons, and the Machiavellian Aaron the Moor (Harry Lennix) then plot to exact revenge on Titus and his family, raping and disfiguring his daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser), framing his sons for murder and, ultimately, beheading them.
Going absolutely bonkers, Titus plots revenge on Tamora, her sons, Aaron the Moor and Saturninus, sending his remaining son, Lucius (Angus McFayden) to raise an army of Goths against Rome. In the meantime, Tamora bears a black son, obviously Aaron’s child, and asks the Moor to kill the baby. Outraged, Aaron plots his revenge on Tamora.
Eventually, dressed in a chef’s outfit, (Anthony Hopkins doing his best Laurence Olivier) crazy old Titus bakes Tamora’s son into two meat pies and serves them for the Emperor and the Queen at a bloody banquet held in their honor.
Revenge, double revenge, double double revenge, trickery, deceit, fraud, nihilism, atheism, suicide, infanticide, torture, rape, dismemberment, ritual sacrifice, honor killing and war. This film pleads the case that we have become a culture obsessed with death and violence. Of course, it was written 400 years ago.
Beautifully photographed by Luciano Tovoli, Titus is a visual treat to behold. The naturalistic, unaffected performances of the stellar cast are set against Taymor’s highly stylized production designed by Dante Ferretti, creating a super-real theatricality to the film. Even at 2 hours and 40 minutes, Titus speeds toward its inevitable tragic conclusion with edge-of-your-seat intensity.