Having been blown away by Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007), I picked up her debut theatrical feature Titus (1999) some time back, but only got around to watching it last week. The prospect of 162 minutes of “radical” Shakespeare was a little daunting. I needn’t have worried. Though it’s about as different in tone as could be imagined than Across the Universe, Titus is very clearly the product of the same unique artistic sensibility. The same sense of fearlessness—the kind of fearlessness that doesn’t worry about possibly looking ridiculous—was evident from the onset, and the results were electrifying, disturbing and brilliant. Hell, she even managed to get a performance out of Anthony Hopkins that wasn’t the reliable cookie-cutter one he’s been fobbing off on directors for ages.
Taymor takes William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and sets it in a world of pure imagination, where past and present collide to form a world that is strangely timeless. One moment it’s ancient Rome, the next it’s fascist Italy, and the next it might be last week. This isn’t just a filmmaker trying to radicalize old Will for the fun of it. No, Taymor is after something bigger: the sense of a connection between Shakespeare’s time and our own. Titus Andronicus is probably Shakespeare’s first play—and it’s also his most violent, bloody and gruesome one. Set next to it, Macbeth seems a positively cozy entertainment. It’s because of this that the play fell out of favor during the Victorian era; it was just too grim, too nasty and frankly in too bad taste. But what repelled the Victorians can seem pretty relevant to a modern audience more in tune with black comedy and violence—and that’s the reasoning behind the film’s past-to-present era approach. And it’s an approach that works beautifully.
There’s not a false move in the entire movie. Everything seems just right—from the modern opening to an ancient Rome with occasional motorcars and a huge building that at once recalls the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and fascist architecture. The graphic violence—played for both shock and twisted humor—works on both levels. And while it’s all present in Shakespeare’s text, the immediacy of actually seeing the severed heads and limbs, the rapes, the degeneracy and the cannibalism is something else again. This may just be the most striking and unsettling translation of Shakespeare ever committed to film.