Remembering Julie Taymor’s Titus
For all the cultural impact William Shakespeare has had on our current pop culture, the cinematic adaptations of the Bard’s work can still feel like eating your vegetables. Images of stuffy castles, frilly costumes, and impenetrable dialogue have haunted many a former high school student forced to suffer through a blurry VHS or DVD in English class.
The late ’90s/early ‘00s was the apex of modern Shakespeare retellings. Baz Lurhman’s Romeo and Juliet is the most famous example, a gaudy, wickedly entertaining pop music rendition. The Ethan Hawke Hamlet is another, so contemporary as to become hilariously outdated. The famous “to be or not to be” speech takes place in a Blockbuster Video no less. Of course, there have been countless gangland updates of Macbeth.
Titus is a different breed. To say it is modern is not to describe it as taking place in modern-day. Nor does it take the skeleton of the play for a 10 Things I Hate About You or West Side Story or even a My Own Private Idaho riff. Titus is as slavish an adaptation as Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet, using most of the text and plunging into the heart of why Shakespeare would delve into material so lurid.
Its clearest filmic counterpart would be Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, not in script fidelity but in its interrogation of the idea of Shakespeare as a genre. Books takes the outline of The Tempest and remixes it into a meta-narrative with John Gielgud’s Prospero standing in for Shakespeare himself, narrating the story as it unfolds around him. The story happens at him, more so than to him, and Greenaway’s art installation approach—combining dance, mime, opera—creates a cacophony of Shakespeare iconography. It’s ironic that Julie Taylor directed her own version of The Tempest in 2010. Whereas her grand Guignol approach turned Titus into an epic, her half-hearted, passionless second run at lightning in a bottle makes The Tempest an airless misfire.
Titus is more than just a smorgasbord for literary enthusiasts, it’s a monument to the possibility of Shakespeare adaptations.
Titus remains her crowning filmic achievement (her The Lion King on Broadway is still the most successful piece of entertainment ever), and it’s a high-wire act of every element of film production somehow coalescing into an unforgettable whole. This is cinematic Jenga. Remove the impressive costumes or relocate some of the historical locations or replace Elliot Goldenthal’s monumental score and the film might just become a catastrophe.
For many in 2000, Titus was just that. The film’s abrasive mix of phantasmagoria and classicism broke more than a few minds in its day, and there’s little indication that it had any influence on modern Shakespeare adaptations. I would call it a lost classic, but there really isn’t a place for it today, not even in our nostalgia culture. Google search “Titus 20 years later” and this might be the only article. Even its release date at the turn of the millennium catches it in this weird limbo between the arthouse misfires of the ‘90s and the ambitious hidden gems of the ‘00s.
It’s apropos for Julie Taymor, who consciously placed the film out of time, and in a way, made it timeless. Long gone are the stuffy castles. Titus opens in present-day with our conduit, ten-year-old Lucius, violently mashing his action figures together before being transported to an anachronistic netherworld that’s called Rome but borrows from ‘30s fascist Italy and even has such ‘90s items as a video arcade. General Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) returns victorious from war and sacrifices the eldest son of Goth Queen Tamora (Jessica Lange), which begins a sordid cycle of revenge that escalates to the rape of Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, and spirals to his revenge via cooking her abusers in a pie…seriously.
The conventional history is that Titus was a mercenary work for the Bard, an attempt to capitalize on the popular revenge plays of the day. Its extreme violence and baffling absurdity made it the most maligned of his works until its 20th-century reappraisal. Taymor saw it as his most contemporarily relevant play, as much a parody of the bloodlust of his day as it was a mainstream tragedy. She may revel in the savagery, but she never forgets the human element. The discovery of the ravaged Lavinia—tongue torn out, hands lopped off—is quite horrific. And Aaron (played to diabolical perfection by Harry Lennix) is allowed to be both a vicious schemer and a sentimental father figure to his bastard child with Tamora. The only person of color in the play, Aaron becomes more than the pariah or the stereotypical black villain in Taymor’s hands. He’s an outcast finding agency through villainy.
Julie Taymor’sTitus is still unmatched as pure Shakespearean imagination.
Perhaps it’s a woman’s touch that grounds the violence. Once the revenge wheel stops spinning, we’re left with a coliseum of pointless carnage. Punishment has been rendered but what lessons learned? Shakespeare’s tragedies are usually the downfalls of foolhardy men, posturing with their toxic male egos. Anthony Hopkins taps into some of his Hannibal Lector theatrics but for the most part, he is a walking wound, battle-hardened to the point where violence seems rote. His death scene is more a foregone conclusion than a shock.
In Taymor’s hands, Titus finds a sobering morsel of hope at the end. Young Lucius liberates Aaron and Tamora’s bastard child and carries him off into the sunset. It’s the film’s longest shot, concluding the chaos in as arresting a way imaginable—enigmatic but strangely uplifting. Composer Elliot Goldenthal is the unsung hero of the film, stringing Taymor’s theatrical subconscious into a musical tapestry so vast it’s amazing he was never awarded the Oscar for it. Operatic orchestrations beget bopping jazz begets thrashing metal begets shrieking dissonance, sometimes in the same scene.
This is Shakespeare as jazz with a little rock & roll for good measure, improvised and chaotic yet flowing gracefully scene to scene. More than any other Shakespeare retelling, Titus never telegraphs its act or scene breaks. There is no staging here, only mise en scene…like an actual movie. Taymor rejects the “filmed play” trap of so many adaptations, opting for musicality to her scenes (iambic pentameter is essentially music, after all).
Twenty years later, the film is more than just a smorgasbord for literary enthusiasts, it’s a monument to the possibility of filmic Shakespeare adaptations. Years after Titus, we’re still receiving standard, blasé “updates” of Romeo and Juliet, Merchant of Venice, Henry IV, etc. There have been a few exceptions. Ralph Fienne’s Coriolanus sets the story in war-torn Europe with modern media acting as a chorus. Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth keeps the stuffy setting but infuses it with viciousness and despair that vibes with its brutal visual aesthetic. Joss Whedon made a modern LA Much Ado About Nothing pretty much over a weekend with friends.
As varied as those films are, Titus is still unmatched as pure Shakespearean imagination. It may not retain a legacy as a high school English class “eat your vegetables” staple, but it’s a juicy meat pie worth savoring.