Film Review: Titus (1999)

Into the Dark - Film Review: Titus (1999)

Julie Taymor’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is, quite simply, an orgasm of cinematic delights.

The story of Titus Andronicus is a fascinating dissertation on human violence.  It opens in the aftermath of war, as Titus (Anthony Hopkins) returns victorious to Rome, having just defeated the Goths and captured their queen, Tamora (Jessica Lange), and her sons.  Fulfilling his religious duties, Titus disembowels Tamora’s eldest son and burns his entrails before her.  Tamora vows revenge and things only get worse from there.  In grand Shakespearean fashion, nearly everyone is dead by the time the curtains fall.

Into the Dark - Film Review: Titus (1999)

Jessica Lange is Queen of the Visigoths in Julie Taymor's "Titus."

What I love most is the sophisticated depiction of good and evil at play in almost every character.  No character, aside from Aaron (Harry Lennix), is purely good or evil. Each one of them is capable of tremendous violence. Tamora is introduced to us as a sympathetic character, a queen brought to her knees, begging for the life of her son. Later she commands her sons to rape Lavinia, stating, “the worse to her the better loved of me”. When she gives birth to Aaron’s son, she orders it killed. As members of the audience we understand her motivations and still maintain some degree of empathy for her, even though she is ultimately a villain. Likewise, Titus is introduced to us as a stoic, rigid man, bound by law and tradition. He’s quite difficult to love, but as he’s stripped from his armor, both physically and emotionally, we eventually come to see him as an avuncular old man driven mad by misfortune. Saturninus’ rash behavior is counterbalanced by the childlike demeanor he assumes with Tamora, and even the tragic Lavinia is given a moment to spout gratuitously scathing remarks to Tamora before she realizes her life is in danger. One could even argue Aaron is more complicated than he appears.  He does after all, love his newborn son and offer his life in exchange for the baby’s.

Without adding or changing any of Shakespeare’s original text, Julie Taymor gives the material a fresh perspective by deliberately incorporating the character of Young Lucius (Osheen Jones) to all the movie’s many acts of violence. The prelude to the film shows the boy playing with violent toys and getting caught up in a behavioral frenzy that spirals into actual warfare – with a cannonball tearing into the room and a clown coming to rescue the boy and deliver him to the coliseum, the ultimate symbol of violence, or what Taymor calls “the archetypal theatre of cruetly.”

By including Young Lucius so deliberately, Taymor makes the film more provocative — what does all the violence mean?  How does it affect us?  What does it do to our children?

Collaborating with production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Milena Cononero, Taymor creates an anachronistic world that blends time and space. Modern architecture is mixed with ancient Rome’s, chariots ride alongside motorcycles, and props include such modern inventions as steel-riveted thrones and zip-loc bags.  What could have been a jarring aesthetic is rather successful in setting the story “neverwhere” and “neverwhen,” making it all the more accessible and relevant to audiences, no matter when and where you see it. Composer Elliot Goldenthal implements this concept in his grand score to the film, one that contains traditional orchestra, jazz-rock, and industrial music.  Bringing the images to life is veteran cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, who commands the lighting in much the same way he did Dario Argento’s Suspiria – with high contrast and vivid colors.

Into the Dark - Film Review: Titus (1999)

Petulent Saturninus (Alan Cumming) lounges on his throne.

Taymor does a terrific job staging the film, especially in a series of inspired locations. With little information about locations dictated by Shakespeare’s original text, Taymor explored the inner minds of the characters. “Scenery is metaphorical to the state of mind,” Taymor says of her choices. After Lavinia loses her chastity to Chiron and Demetrius, she is set on a wooden pedestal in the middle of a burned out swamp, land that has been similarly ravaged. Likewise, Titus finds himself pleading for the lives of his sons on a crossroads, for his life is emotionally in such a state.

Another of Taymor’s brilliant contributions is what she calls “Penny Arcade Nightmares” – montage-like sequences that utilize special effects photography and superimposed images to convey characters’ heightened emotions.  The first sequence depicts the rift between Titus and Tamora, presenting them in confrontational profiles with fire and severed body parts flying between them. Another recounts the rape scene, in which Lavinia is dressed like a doe caught between flash-cut images of pouncing tigers and Demetrius & Chiron, her attackers. These unique, singularly cinematic moments help Taymor’s film version of Titus burst through the confines that often strangle stage-to-screen adaptations.

Into the Dark - Film Review: Titus (1999)

Aaron (Harry Lennix) with child

Taymor’s acting ensemble is a collection of venerable award-winners. This is my favorite role for Anthony Hopkins because it allows him to demonstrate considerable range – from begging face down in the road for the life of his sons, to laughing half-mad and splashing around in a bathtub. This is also my favorite performance from Jessica Lange (and this was her very first time doing Shakespeare). Tamora is duplicitous by nature, so there are always multiple things going on in Lange’s performance. Some of her line readings send a chill down my spine.

The story of Titus is as relevant and compelling as ever before. Julie Taymor’s film is true to the material and daring in its aesthetic experimentation, showcasing exemplary artistry and craftsmanship from every aspect of cinema — writing, directing, acting, wardrobe, production design, photography, music, and more. It’s almost overwhelming, too beautiful to bear, and one of my favorite motion pictures ever made.

Rating: 5/5 ★★★★★ 


About Scott_S

Scott studied film and sociology at Indiana University and is currently the video producer for a large publishing company. He is the director of several independent films, including "House of Hope," "Off the Beaten Path," "The Day Joe Left," and "Found." For more about Scott, visit Scott is also one of the principal organizers of the Dark Carnival Film Festival. (

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