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The audience members leaving a typical screening of Titus, avant-garde stage director Julie Taymor's new film adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, silently stumbles through the door of the theater eyes closed or staring at their shoes and unable to discuss the film, or anything else, with their companions. What they have just witnessed has overloaded their brains, not just through its simultaneously breathtaking and shocking visuals, but by the sheer breadth of its historical focus and level of reference.
In fact, when friends asked me even days later whether I thought the new Titus was good, I could only offer that conventional adjectives like "good" and "bad" don't apply to this film-going experience, but that by all means they should see the movie. What Taymor has accomplished, against all odds, is a truly revolutionary form of expression. Both the uniquely visual quality of her imagination and the work at hand are traditionally presented on stage, but in this transfer she manages to take full advantage of the medium of film to show and to do more.
The modernization of Shakespeare is a tricky undertaking, and it has been accomplished to greater and (usually) lesser effect in the past, so this movie's opening scene, which involves a small boy sitting at a kitchen table and staging a battle with toy soldiers and ketchup, was cause for some concern. Just as quickly as this context has been established, though, the boy flies through time and space, a la Alice in Wonderland, to the opening historical scene of the play, set in a coliseum. As the film goes on, the boy becomes as the eyes of the audience, observing the action with minimal emotion.
What he sees is not limited to his modern perspective encroaching on a discrete point in history; Taymor has created a sort of collapsed-time anti-history, allowing visual elements of every period of history imaginable to lead the audience through a journey of personal and intellectual association. For instance, the film shows in quick succession scenes of a Roman Orgy (some of which had to be cut to obtain an R rather than NC-17 rating), scenes in a modern video arcade, beautifully mystical dream sequences of interconnection, and scenes in which characters ride in '30s-style cars.
Somehow, this approach manages to appear shockingly brilliant rather than random. Such success may in large part be due to the fact that Shakespeare's original work was not itself historically situated; it mixed myth, history and pure fiction to create a world equal parts Ancient Rome and post-medieval Europe. So even though she allows monumental flights of historical fancy, Taymor is able to successfully preserve a greater portion of the original text than has been used in any recent film adaptation of Shakespeare with the exception of Kenneth Branagh's 1996 Hamlet.
The liberties taken in this version, then, are not in language; they are visual. Titus is, regardless of how modern audiences react to it, surprisingly faithful to Shakespeare in that it does not contradict much of his original text, which lacked any stage direction. This is precisely why Taymor succeeds where other directors have failed: although she does feel free to invent on her own just as Shakespeare did, her invention is not in any way at odds with his. Her work does not second-guess Titus Andronicus or steal its fire; it expounds on it and creates out of it a whole new experience in a way that only Julie Taymor can.
The play itself is Shakespeare's goriest and one of his earliest, the first his works to gain him wide recognition and the first to be published. Although it concerns a web of revenge and desire that eventually involves murder, rape, insanity and fake insanity, cannibalism, torture and the on-screen severing of virtually every body part imaginable, this version intelligently focuses not on violence and revenge themselves, but on how people respond to it. So although virtually every character is involved in one act of violence or another, the motivation of the act itself remains particularly personal.
Titus himself, as portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins in one of his most brilliant performances to date, stands at the center of the web of wrongdoing, symbolically represented in one of the film's most stirring scenes by a country crossroads. Although his act of sacrificially murdering the oldest son of Tamora Queen of the Goths (the passionate and powerful Jessica Lange) sets the plot of the piece in motion, he spends most of the play contemplating and acting on his understanding of the human capacity for evil. Certainly, he is not above revenge, but as the protagonist, he allows the audience to follow the inner workings of his mind, alternately scheming and wanting to trust. Hopkins' almost unimaginable emotional and theatrical range is particularly suited to this role, and through it he provides a something to hold on to throughout the movie to an audience who desperately needs it.
The central motivations of most of the other characters, with the notable exception of Aaron the Moor (Harry Lennix), are more obvious. Tamora is (and is repeatedly represented as) a lioness, bestial in her pursuit of pleasure and fiercely protective of her young. Saturnius, the young emperor foppishly and petulantly embodied by the fine stage actor Alan Cumming, simply seeks to protect his authority and to be loved. Tamora's two younger sons (Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Matthew Rhys) are simply bored and callous, devoted to violence and provocation out of sheer idiocy and for want of a better option.
Rather than acting as a sort of human pawn within the formidable visual conception of the film, each actor delivers a powerfully invested performance, energetically pursuing both the most visceral and the most subtle of his or her character's particular motivations. Harry Lennix's performance as Aaron delivers a jolt of quiet intensity to what is generally considered the first great black role in English drama. His character, which could easily be seen as a simply embodiment of evil, is motivated first by his status as an outsider, and then by pride and paternal love. The racial issues in the play, especially in the violent and ahistorical context of this film, have great contemporary resonance.
It is perhaps such resonance, the free-wheeling association of Taymor's images and the magic of the text itself, that make watching this adaptation of Titus a sort of dreamlike experience which continues well after the film itself ends. The images of the film have a way of growing in the imagination rather than fading away, leaving the audience curiously marked by the passing of this marvelous sensory experience.
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