Whoever said Shakespeare couldn’t play to the cheap seats? The bard was not only brilliant at loftier themes like self-awareness, politics and the contemplation of the many forms of love, he could also mash-up horror, sex, violence, torture and cannibalism with the best of them – then and now. And he does it all in iambic pentameter, the playwrights’ equivalent to Ginger Rogers doing everything her partner does, only backwards and in heels.
This is Julie Taymor’s first feature, and her love for theatrical excess is well known, for better or worse. When she takes on one of Shakespeare’s least popular and bleak plays, Titus Andronicus, she manages to inject it with considerable glee and visual ingenuity. On the page, the play is text-heavy and dark – if ever there was a Shakespeare work in need of modern subtitles, Titus Andronicus is it – but by way of Taymor’s considerable skill with imagery and movement, it becomes almost playful Grand Guignol fare of the sort that has entertained audiences from medieval puppetry smack downs to Saw.
The story is Shakespeare’s bloodiest, being basically a tragedy of vengeance and retribution, power and political grab, and the collateral damage that results. Although the text is set during the Roman Empire, Taymor imaginatively expands the reach and pertinence of the play. She turns her talented team loose, demanding they break with any predetermined conventions with regards to Shakespearean drama. Bizarre costumes (by Milena Canonero) and production design (Dante Ferretti) make the proceedings engulf centuries of dictatorships. Composer Elliot Goldenthal compiled his pot-pourri of a score from jazz-fusion to grand orchestral styles, often sampling his own work from other films scores. The results are hypnotizing.
Then there are the great, go-for-broke performances. Anthony Hopkins in the title role would appall even Sweeny Todd. He is the general who returns victorious with hostages in tow, only to face political and familial problems on a grand scale. And does he get ever even. Jessica Lange as Tamora, his hostage, the very horny Queen of the Goths, is positively in her element here, giving one of her finest performances. This is her only Shakespearean role in a feature film and she’s riveting as she writhes, coos, growls and plots. Alan Cumming is on hand as Saturninus, a recent turncoat against the Andronicus family and suitor to Tamora. Matthew Rhys, Laura Fraser, Colm Feore, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and James Frain also join in on the frolics.
So why was the film so under-appreciated when it was released? It positively bombed at the box office – 1999 saw the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, The Mummy and Toy Story 2. With these titles leading the pack that year at the box office, it’s an obvious understatement that Shakespearean drama simply wasn’t in the public taste, but is it ever? Sure, the language is a challenge, true, but a little patience and an attentive ear quickly resolve that, with numerous rewards for the viewer. Taymor expanded the scope of the film in time and space, and injected some comedic – even camp – interpretations to create a “big-top” experience that rivals anything that was onscreen at the time. Hell, she even tossed in the occasional orgy. Not to demean 1999 box office champs, but none of them hold a candle to Taymor’s brave and commanding cinematic vision here.
Sex, violence, vivisection, nudity, torture and cannibalism – all set in iambic pentameter with choreographed marching, jaw-dropping sets and costumes, and imagination sequences only Julie Taymor could come up with. Will Shakespeare knew how to please 16th Century horror fans; this time around, though, it’s Taymor who turns it into art for this millennium. And I think old Will would be truly pleased with her adaptation.