After I watched Equus on Sunday, I decided to ramp up the drama into horrific tragedy by watching Julie Taymor’s bizarre 1999 film version of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.
This film is bloody enough in its own right, but it transcends the usual graphic horror found in Stephen King novels or teen slasher flicks by showering the innocent as well as the not-so-innocent with the soul-wrenching agony of parents watching their children and the children watching their siblings suffer horrible deaths and torture.
Think of Titus Andronicus as Shakespeare’s predecessor to Game of Thrones with the horror turned up a notch but without the mercy that occasionally pops up.
Wikipedia notes that Shakespeare wrote this to “to emulate the violent and bloody revenge plays of his contemporaries, which were extremely popular with audiences throughout the 16th century [per Joseph Quincy Adams’ Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: The First Quarto, 1594 published by Scribner’s Sons, 1936].
Shakespeare knew how to work with his audience’s emotion.
Unlike other Shakespeare plays, this one is not based on a historical character. It is set in an unspecified time in Rome after the reign of Julius Caesar. Titus is a general returning from a successful campaign against the Goths (who defeated the Romans at Adrianople in 378 CE followed by the Visigoths sacking Rome in 410 CE). He has brought with him the Goth queen Tamora and her three sons. To pay homage to the gods during the interment of 25 of his soldiers, Titus sacrifices the eldest son of Tamora, who begs for her son’s life. Titus continues with the sacrifice.
The emperor of Rome has died and just after the execution of Tamora’s son, the emperor’s son Satuninus ascends to the throne. Saturninus wants Titus’s daughter Lavinia for his bride and Titus gives her to him, even though she is in love with Bassanius. Just after Lavinia takes her place beside Saturninus, Titus gives him an additional gift of Tamora and her two remaining sons. Saturninus practically drools over Tamora. Lavinia immediately runs off with Bassianus, but Saturninus has the woman he craves, so he decides not to bother with Lavinia. This makes Tamora the empress of Rome. Things keep getting worse and worse for Titus and his family as only Shakespeare can do. Lots of gore and blood and screaming. If John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, George Romero, Dario Argento, and Guillermo de Toro could team up for a movie, this would be the movie they would make, but in King James English. Lots of limbs and heads coming off.
Julie Taymor sets this in a fantasy time, where swords and guns, horses and cars,, togas and suits are used with anachronistic abandon. From what the Wikipedia article on Titus Andronicus says, she did this to show the timelessness of violence. In one of the few obscenities I will use on this website, I will say NO SHIT, JULIE. VIOLENCE IS TIMELESS. TELL US SOMETHING WE DON’T KNOW.
But then, her production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is also unusual including the gender of the wizard and main character, Prospero, is changed from a man to a woman. Still, If she hadn’t translated these films to cinema, who would have. I am grateful that I got to see them in whatever form, so long as they remain reasonably true to Shakespeare’s script. Setting a Shakespeare play in another time is not unusual. Kenneth Branagh did it with Hamlet and Baz Luhrmann did it with Romeo and Juliet.
Still, with Taymor the effect is still a tad weird. She starts out in the modern day with a boy of about 11 playing violent games with toys on his kitchen table. He is then whisked away to the fictional time and world of Titus Andronicus, where he spends several scenes loitering in the foreground and watching the main characters, before he becomes Titus’s grandson toward the end of the movie.
In my humble opinion, the movie could have done without the character of the modern boy. It’s too distracting from the story and the dialogue. I don’t mind so much the setting being in a fantasy time and world, but the boy is an unnecessary detail that adds nothing to the plot or to the overall story.
Personally, I would have preferred that the movie be more historically accurate, even though the characters are fictional. Julie should have just picked a post-Christ era of the Roman empire and ran with it.
Mel Gibson could have done it better.
Anyway, if you are into horror, like I am (though I don’t go for really graphic stuff), this may be the Shakespeare play for you.
Overall, it was a decent production and NOT BORING. I was definitely wide awake and pausing the movie when I had to take the dog out. I don’t do that for all films. The plot is intriguing and the characters sympathetic with good and evil in each, though often one outweighs the other.
As with all Shakespeare plays made into movies and sticking to the original script, the King James English is tricky to learn at first, but it can be done. I have watched several of these films and it takes a while to adapt, but it helps it you read the closed captions. Once you adapt to it, you will wonder what happened to the beauty of the English language over the centuries. There are some beautiful and incredibly poignant passages in the dialogues, made even more poignant when you understand the overall situation the speaking character is in.
I would write more, but I have a headache from being in the declining phase of a cold and will close it here. Maybe I will write more later. I have wanted to watch Titus Andronicus for a long time and finally got around to it today. I am glad I did.
I recommend this movie highly, especially for all Shakespeare aficionados.