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'Titus': A Modern Tragedy

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2000

   


    'Titus' Anthony Hopkins stars in "Titus."
(Fox Searchlight)
"Titus," starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, amounts to director Julie Taymor's filmic reprise of her 1995 stage adaptation of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus." Between these "Titus" projects, Taymor directed the Broadway version of "The Lion King," for which she is best-known.

One thing seems clear: Taymor should stick with Disney.

Hopkins is masterful as Titus, the grizzled Roman warrior who returns after a great military campaign, only to fall afoul of the political cloak-and-dagger machinations in Rome. Unfortunately, everything he achieves is turned on its face by Taymor's direction, which doesn't interpret Shakespeare so much as make an amateurishly postmodern spectacle of itself.

When Titus returns with the captured Goth Queen Tamora (Lange) and her sons in tow, he honors tradition by executing Tamora's oldest son. This marks the beginning of a multilayered vendetta that will leave many dead, disfigured or served up in pies.

When Rome's elders invite Titus to rule Rome, the noble soldier passes the mantle to the spoiled, supercilious Saturninus (Alan Cumming, who unintentionally suggests Tim Curry's geeky brother), who struts around in a red-lapeled black leather coat followed by his similarly clad goon squad.

Saturninus shocks Titus by freeing and marrying Tamora, allowing her sons Alarbus (Raz Degan) and Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) to run amok.

Things get increasingly nasty. Tamora and her lover, the Moor Aaron (Harry Lennix), foment a plan of revenge against Titus, including framing the old soldier's sons for the death of Saturninus's brother. And Tamora's sons accost and rape Titus's beloved daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser).

But Titus, whose fealty to Rome knows no bounds, refuses to intervene in these obvious acts of treachery. But as madness descends upon him – this would be right around the time Aaron tricks him into slicing off one of his hands – he starts to plot his counter-revenge.

With a story as twisted and bizarre as this, a little directorial conceit goes a long way. But Taymor storms in, brimming over with the kind of "clever" postmodern zeal that was already passe when Peter Brook made the 1967 film, "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade."

Taymor simply wants us to know Who's Directing This. Saturninus and his slickly clad cohorts zoom around the city in squad cars and motorbikes. TV network news microphones are labeled "SPQR News." Alarbus and Chiron are portrayed as air-guitar metalheads. And a modern-day child (Osheen Jones) enters the story, only to tag irrelevantly along in every scene.

There's something hideously pretentious about the whole thing. This modernization-of-Shakespeare fever (so the MTV generation can appreciate the Bard's utter dudeness) has become so banal a filmmaker could practically earn the appellation enfant terrible by adapting a Shakespeare play without such frills. But not Taymor. She has too many Great Ideas about modern life to focus our attention on the play. For this she deserves hoots and howls from those cackling hyenas in "The Lion King."

TITUS (R, 165 minutes) – Contains disturbing violence, sexual scenes and Shakespearean strong language.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


 

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