Movie Information

The Hendersonville Film Society will show Titus at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 30, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot on the left.)
Genre: Drama
Director: Julie Taymor
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Harry Lennix, Angus Macfadyen
Rated: R

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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5 thoughts on “Titus

  1. xvelouria

    I second this. TITUS is amazing! When I first saw it soon after it came out, I was undecided about some the more..erm.. “artistic” moments in the film, but now I can see that they are essential. I’m glad ACROSS THE UNIVERSE was such a good movie, too, because I had really high expectations for it just from seeing Taymor’s TITUS. I can’t say I liked that Frida movie, though. Meh.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I was significantly underwhelmed by FRIDA, but after seeing ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, I picked up a copy to give it another shot. I’ve yet to do that, but I do plan on it. The thing is, I know the script is still going to be clunky and try to cover too broad a spectrum. Still, maybe I missed something…

    Unless I’m missing someone truly significant — and I don’t think Lina Wertmuller quite qualifies — it’s beginning to look a lot to me like Julie Taymor may be the first truly great woman novie director.

  3. Adam Renkovish

    I agree. This was an amazing film. I still have not seen FRIDA. I plan on watching it, though. Great review, by the way…

  4. Ken Hanke

    Thanks, Adam. I’m still trying to get around to watching FRIDA (again). I think there’s a public showing of it in the near future and then I’ll have to give it that second look.

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