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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 2

#2: Titus (1999)

If a postmodern, ahistorical approach to Shakespeare repulsed me in the hands of Baz Luhrmann, that aesthetic charms the shit out of me in the hands of Julie Taymor in her adaptation of the brutal, early Shakespeare play, Titus Andronicus.

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For example, the campaigning of those who would be emperor of Rome, as well as the victory party of the successful consul, is accompanied by the syncopated horns of swing jazz. The middle of the twentieth century (fascism, cars, music, technology) is conflated with the architecture, aesthetics, and technology of ancient Rome without any sense of self-congratulation (a la Baz Luhrmann). The viewer doesn’t get the sense that the director thinks all art is beautiful and crazy.

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Rather, one gets the sense that the violence of antiquity and the present day are rooted in the continuous psychology of the human race.

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The film begins with a little boy smashing a variety of his toys (fighter planes, Roman soldiers, wind-up robots) and desserts before a loud television in a rage of childish glee.

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The building he is in is bombed as Titus Andronicus returns with the Roman army in a triumph that belies his weariness at having killed so many, at having lost so many, including his sons. The boy from the opening scene will turn out to be Lucius, Titus’s grandson.

The difference, of course, is that Julie Taymor imagines that art might matter, that the mad fugue of smashing that young Lucius undertakes is not, as Baz Luhrmann seems to think, the sum total of art itself, even if such anarchy might be a part of art, and a significant part of the human condition. We should not be content with that.

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When you have a screenplay involving ritual slayings, dismemberment, and cannibalism, it helps if Anthony Hopkins is your lead actor; what makes Titus even more disturbing than The Silence of the Lambs, however, is that the story isn’t some vamp on abnormal psychology. The carnage and psychosis of Titus Andronicus is the entirely natural outgrowth of honor and tribalism and war. Clarice Starling represented us trying to see into the mind of madness; the characters of Titus probably are us.

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Which is to say Anthony Hopkins is playing a much different character, and really one needs a man of almost unthinkable stature and humility to play this part of the general who does not want to rule Rome. The bombast of the role would sound absurd of a lesser actor. Somehow, Hopkins gives this character a scope one can, despite the odds, empathize with.

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Jessica Lange, as Tamora, the vengeful, conquered queen of the Goths, is also deeply impressive, and holds her own against Anthony Hopkins.

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Alan Cumming, as Saturninus, is a wonderfully campy tyrant–equal parts Marilyn Manson, Pee Wee Herman, and Hitler.

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Harry Lennix, as Aaron, however, is what makes Titus the most sublime.

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Aaron the Moor is Shakespeare’s other black part, except that Aaron is all Iago and not at all like Othello. He is Shakespeare’s greatest villain, and his malevolence is astounding. Yet we are given to know why he is willing to destroy so much, and like Richard III has decided to relish the villainous role that has been given to him.

The great strength of Shakespeare is in his characterization, the depth of his understanding of human psychology centuries before this was a mode of human inquiry. We are still learning from him what it means to be human.

We don’t need Shakespeare to seem dusty, or appropriately Elizabethan or medieval or ancient or purely historically accurate (although a thoughtless carelessness with historical setting is disappointing). We don’t need Shakespeare to be acted by the English. We just need good actors, and a director who understands the poetry and the psychology of the words. With Titus, the cast and director Julie Taymor would have pleased Shakespeare immensely, although he would, of course, be impatient for his royalties, should he have lived so long.



John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.