When one thinks of the works of William Shakespeare - be they on the stage or screen - titles such as "Hamlet," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Othello" are usually the first to come to mind. Yet the prolific playwright wrote more than thirty notable works, including "Titus Andronicus," his first tragedy (and first play to be printed), that makes it to the big screen for the first time (it previously appeared on TV as a 1985 BBC production).
Like Shakespeare's other such works, this one's filled with treachery, violence and lust. For better or worse, it also contains the playwright's original poetic and occasionally difficult to follow and/or understand verse. While that may delight theatre buffs and Shakespearean fans, it will probably frustrate mainstream moviegoers who, if they're like yours truly, need time to become acclimated to the highly descriptive and poetic dialogue.
As something of a "remedy," first-time director Julie Taymor has taken the work and filtered it through the equivalent of a several-stop trip in a time machine. While director Baz Luhrmann did something vaguely similar in his 1996 version of "Romeo+Juliet," he simply moved the play and its characters forward to modern times and presented the well-known story in a frenetic, MTV-like style.
Here, Taymor - best known for her Tony award winning direction of Broadway's "The Lion King" - has fashioned such an eclectic version of this lesser-known story - which she also mounted as an off-Broadway play -- that it's hard to tell how audiences - let alone critics - will react.
Although the dialogue remains "ancient," the setting is still Rome and gladiators don the appropriate swords and metal body armor, much of the rest of the treatment is akin to one of those "warped reality" episodes on the old "Star Trek" TV series.
Those were the ones where Kirk and his crew would find an alien civilization fashioned after a former one from Earth - such as the Nazis or Romans - that had logically (or illogically, depending on how you might view it) continued into modern times but without forgoing the trappings of old. As such and in this film, 1920s vintage cars drive alongside horse-drawn carriages, armor-clad warriors use guns or modern day bows and arrows, and certain characters wear fedoras while a few even play arcade style video games.
Beyond paying homage to those imaginative "Trek" episodes, I'm not sure of Taymor's intent. Shakespearean purists will balk at the changes, and the audience they're most designed for - the type who watch MTV - won't have much interest in this film due to the absence of young, name stars (such as Leo and Claire in "Romeo+Juliet").
The initial contrasts - of "modern day" instruments in a period piece - are odd and confusing at best and obviously distracting at worst. Since Taymor doesn't use the more modern material and accouterments throughout the production, their random appearances - beyond being mildly intriguing in an odd fashion - nearly always derail the film since they pull the audience out of the proceedings and plunk them back down into the theater, now detached in all ways from the film.
That said, the moments where she's captured our attention - and there are plenty - are quite compelling and impressive. Taymor clearly shows her Broadway roots by mounting a visually stimulating spectacle and as a result, the picture is certainly never boring to watch. In addition, the story - while not considered one of Shakespeare's more polished works (although it obviously inspired some of his later ones) - does succeed on several levels.
The most powerful obviously relates to the audience's seemingly inherent enjoyment of watching villains get their comeuppance (which must not have changed much from the Bard's time 'till now). Since this film has plenty of such moments - including an interesting, several century precursor to "Sweeney Todd" and "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" - those who savor revenge and retaliation will certainly get a kick out of this film.
A better point to savor, however, is the impressive cast that Taymor has assembled. I'll readily sit through anything the great Anthony Hopkins ("Instinct," "Meet Joe Black") appears in, and the legendary actor delivers a credible take on the general who finds his world turned upside down. Nearly as impressive, although employing an entirely different approach at playing her character, is Jessica Lange ("Cousin Bette," "Blue Sky") as the emperor's sultry wife. Vamping it up to full extreme, Lange, who's now topped the fifty-year-old mark, shows she's still has what it takes to play such a part.
Meanwhile, Alan Cumming ("Plunkett & Macleane," "Spice World") is appropriately slimy as the new emperor and Harry J. Lennix ("Get on the Bus," "Clockers") is quite impressive as the angry Moor who slowly begins to transform into a different sort of character as the story progresses. Other performances, from the likes of Laura Fraser, Angus MacFadyen and Colm Feore are all solid.
While some viewers may enjoy Taymor's time-bending update on the Bard's play, most everyone else will probably find the odd collection of temporal elements a bit too jarring, especially upon their first few appearances. Nonetheless, the film features a compelling, and easy to understand, if not well-known plot and a great cast, and by delivering its share of impressive moments proves that Taymor has what it takes to deliver the big screen goods. Let's just hope that for her next effort she focuses more of her attention on delivering a consistent piece throughout instead of trying to wow the audience with some cinematic razzle-dazzle. Decent, but not great, "Titus" rates as a 6 out of 10.