`Titus’ deemed a masterful adaptation

Luke Thompson

Despite some critical success and a stellar cast, 1999’s Shakespearean adaptation “Titus” got very little attention at the box office. Perhaps this is not particularly surprising. The Bard doesn’t often pack `em in at the multiplexes; plus, it’s one of Shakespeare’s least known and worst plays.

But, while “Titus Andronicus” might not have the elements of a great play – subtlety, complex and believable characters and understatement – it makes for one hell of a movie. Quentin Tarantino would applaud the formula: take a bunch of tough, proud, violent bad-asses, mix them up with betrayal, injustice and vengeance on an epic scale and add a pinch of pseudo-deep stuff so people don’t have to feel so bad about enjoying the resulting mayhem.

Had this script not been penned five hundred years ago by the greatest writer in the history of the world, it would be accused of catering to modern audiences’ TV-shortened attention spans and video-game-insatiable appetites for violence.

Titus opens with a young boy wearing a paper bag war helmet playing with Roman soldier action figures on a kitchen table. As he simulates battle between his plastic antagonists, his play devolves maniacally into unrestrained destruction of his toys, his lunch and everything else on the table.

The scene serves partly as a way of warning us at the get-go that this is not a film for people who like watching actors stand around in tights talking to skulls. This is a movie for people who like to tear the heads off of Barbie dolls and stick firecrackers in G.I. Joes. And who, at least on some level, doesn’t? (Remember, it’s Shakespeare. You don’t have to feel guilty about it.)

The film’s plot involves the triumphant return of the General Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins at his best) to a Rome being quarreled over by the dead emperor’s sons, the villainously- flamboyant Saturnine (Alan Cumming) and honorable Bassianus (James Frain). It is Titus, though, who gets the approval of the senate and hence has the authority to rule. But having had his fill of power and glory in his long military career, he passes on the empire to Saturnine, the elder of the sons.

However, Titus’s own sons and lovely daughter Lavinia favor Bassianus. So when Saturnine tries to make Lavinia his queen, Bassianus and company rescue her and flee, leaving Titus torn between his loyalty to his country and his family. Emperor Saturnine soon forgives the Andronicus clan at the bidding of his sultry new bride, Tamora (Jessica Lange), queen of the vanquished Goths and pardoned prisoner of Titus. She and her wicked Moorish companion, Aaron (Henry Lennix), have their own dark plot to avenge themselves upon Titus, who ceremonially executed Tamora’s eldest, and her two remaining sons have equally wretched intentions for the virtuous young Lavinia.

The charisma of Titus lies largely in just how fantastically evil the deeds visited upon him are, and in turn, how perfectly delicious the undoing of the villains is. The film is a tragedy, but what a whiz-bang tragic romp it is. In a way, it’s a celebration of the last-ditch satisfaction of revenge. Titus might just be the grimmest character you’ll ever want to get up and cheer for.

The film’s visual style is a perfect match to Shakespeare’s most violent play. It is set in a fantastical present-day Roman Empire so as to make use of the barbarism of both modern times and antiquity. Each underhanded deed is filmed with appropriate heavy-handedness (right down to the de-handings). The filmmakers don’t flinch from the macabre caper. Blood and tears flow onscreen with equal abundance and richness.

Richer still are the film’s performances. Anthony Hopkins is an absolute pleasure to watch throughout, bringing a dignified allure to even the saddest states he suffers. Jessica Lange is also fantastic as Tamora, the noble queen you just lust to hate, while Henry Lennix is powerfully inhuman as the scheming Aaron, and Colm Feorre is equally powerful as the humane Brother Marcus.

“Titus” remains true to the original text, which might strike some as a bit inaccessible at first, but you don’t need to catch every little Shakespearean double meaning to enjoy the movie, and what you do catch will be excellent. The downside to this faithfulness is that the film runs a little long so that it can use as many iambically pentastic verses as possible. Don’t worry though, you’ll never get bored. This movie makes “Gladiator” look like a Roman holiday and Hopkin’s Titus would eat Hannibal Lector for dinner.

Although, he’d probably fill out his meal with something a little more hearty than fava beans and Chianti.

Luke Thompson is a senior in English from Fort Dodge.