Shakespeare was never a strongly-held interest of mine throughout my secondary education. His works have barely managed to hold my interest up till now only thanks to the films of Akira Kurosawa and a handful of other intriguing writer/directors who took inspiration from his many writings. Julie Taymor’s “Titus” is one such fine example that managed to captivate my interest but also provide a curiously fresher take on how to adapt a classical epic; even if it is considered to be Shakespeare’s worst play by many! Using the technique of visualizing different historical timelines throughout the film, Taymor enhances perhaps the last great performance of Anthony Hopkins’ career to elevate what would otherwise become a boring precursor to Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (2000). Fortunately, “Titus” brings something more to the table than a sleeker, more modern day adaptation of any Kenneth Branagh Shakespearean efforts throughout the 1990’s. Leaving you instead with a sense of longing for more as opposed to searching for the fat lady within the frame during the final act.
Titus‘ drama hits you head on from the moment the film begins. An army of clay covered soldiers walk like androids across the Colosseum in Rome. Their weapons are attached to them as if they are moving chess pieces. Moving closer to the avatar for our audience, a small 10 year old boy, who is eventually picked up by a soldier and presented to General Titus Andronicus, a figure given great approachability by Hopkins. This is the kind of opening director Julie Taymor is best known for. Her works on the latest spectacular but troubled “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark” venture as well her famous Lion King musical are well known globally. Her film ventures like the critical flop “Across the Universe” (2007) and the academy award winning “Frida” (2002) all contain the visual splendor that musicals for the stage demand; with Taymor mastering this presentational style for the camera to great effect.
The only problem that Taymor contains within herself as a director is the way in which her theater background often overshadows the more subtle touches required to make a film feel more…well, cinematic. The supporting cast are well chosen, particularly where Alan Cumming and Harry Lennix are concerned, particularly Lennix in his portrayal of Aaron that easily deserved an academy nomination at the very least, but as an audience member you feel like you are watching a play at your local theater as opposed to being immersed in the filmic world Taymor has created for us. The sets, the costumes, and other production design elements all excel in bringing out interesting visuals onto the screen, especially when the different time periods begin to make themselves known. But as much as I compliment the many wonderful departments that helped to bring Titus to life I can only feel that Taymor possibly missed the point during the adaptation. The result is a very visually interesting play, but still a play. The many different scene locations are merely background noise for the overall feeling of theater-like drama we witness. Whether this is a good thing or not I can’t say since I’m not truly certain what a movie adaptation of Shakespeare should feel like.
Personally, Titus has moments that I could sheepishly do without. Taymor’s take on how to present Shakespeare for the big screen is far more daring that Branagh’s works, but at least Branagh understood the nature of the plays and only tried to elevate what they truly are for the screen. Taymor instead twists the literature from the original text and brings a modern-day spin to a piece of art that can only live in the epic theatrical landscapes of the past. With this in mind I still highly recommend anyone watch what could very well be the last great performance by an actor who now simply gets by nowadays with a paycheck. The other wonderful aspects of Titus should not be gleamed over by a mile; one of my favorite composers, Elliot Goldenthal, does a fantastic job with the varied musical style that Taymor’s vision demanded, that overtime, has become one of his best works. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli excels in bringing the mythic and modern visual elements into place whilst also managing to capture some truly imaginative close ups during the more theatrical sequences. Costume design also has its moments of glory in the many levels of detail that have gone into the construction of uniforms, armor and fashionable items that occur through the many different time landscapes, creating a truly unique world to gaze into.
Titus is a film that stands out from the array of other Shakespearean adaptations that were theatrically released during the late 1980’s and throughout the 90’s. The only problem with Taymor’s work is that its greatest strength is also the greatest weakness of the film. You’ll either love or hate the directorial approach Taymor took in modernizing Shakespeare’s play. The theatricalities that occur due to the nature of the director’s background and work only help to remind the audience of one thing after viewing: Shakespeare is meant for plays, not for films…whether you admire the bravery of the production or adore it, that fact will always be present for better or for worse.