'Titus Andronicus' enjoys the rather dubious distinction of being one of the least performed works by William Shakespeare, a possible corollary to it also being one of the bloodiest of his works, as well as the recipient of many a chilly critical response, which lingers over the title as though it had once been accused of some great crime. Certainly one of the most argued upon of Shakespeare's plays, 'Titus Andronicus' calls forth a myriad of disagreements and hypotheses with regard to authorial intent and, most tediously, those who persist in disputing the authorship of the work as one bearing Shakespeare's name.
Some have taken to see the work as a wicked send-up of Rome's decadent ruling class, as the gore and violence are so overblown and unrelenting, the suggestion that it is anything else seems too farfetched. Meanwhile, others have taken to describing it as an answer to the immensely popular revenge stories/tragedies of Shakespeare's fellow playwrights, which considering it was written roughly six years before 'Hamlet,' might be saying something with regard to Shakespeare's relative inexperience concerning some of the more prevalent concepts, and could therefore help explain why many see it as such a divergent work from what came afterward.
And while discussions of Shakespeare's intent and questions of authorship have their place, the latter must be pushed aside when discussing Julie Taymor's lavish and wildly imaginative 1999 film version of the play, simply titled 'Titus.' Starring the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, and Colm Feore, the movie is a visually stunning interpretation that, for many, set a new standard for presenting the Bard's work to a modern filmgoing audience – that is: in addition to staying true to the play's objective with regard to narrative, character, and overall gist, 'Titus' played around with visual components that alluded to, or otherwise made more applicable to contemporary viewers, the story's key concepts through the use of various anachronisms bridging the gap between the time in which the play was written, initially set, and when it was being watched. Now, this was by no means a new concept, but what makes Taymor's adaptation so unique is that in her exhaustive efforts to bring a specific aesthetic and design to the production, she effectively created an artistic endeavor that's arguably more powerful and evocative than the work on which it is based.
It could also be argued that 'Titus' has served as the template for future Shakespearean productions, such as the 2010 BBC version of 'Macbeth,' starring Patrick Stewart that contemporized the story of the Thane of Glamis as a metaphor for the rise of Stalin and the protracted conflict the Cold War. But Taymor's work here is more akin to fantasy, the kind of thing that could be compared (at least in its visual ambitions) to her work onstage with 'The Lion King.'
The nightmarish quality of the material, however, and the unrelentingly savage, yet viscerally dazzling violence erupting from the screen, move 'Titus' miles from anything remotely related to the Broadway smash. As the titular Titus, Hopkins begins a harrowing decent into the black belly of human nature, when the conquering hero returns to Rome with Tamora (Jessica Lange) and her three sons (Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Matthew Rhys) in tow. Titus promptly offers up the queen's firstborn, Alarbus (Raz Degan) as a sacrifice, setting in motion a cruel campaign of bloody one-upmanship that soon has Titus, his sons, and daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser, 'Breaking Bad'), caught in an endless cycle of bloody retribution. For her part, Tamora seduces Saturninus (Alan Cumming), who has recently been made emperor, while continuing to plot her vengeance against Titus with her Moorish lover, Aaron (Henry Lennix).
Taymor's prowess for infusing her film with luscious, ornate costumes, sumptuous backgrounds, and, most of all, overt anachronisms that somehow made the text relevant across a multitude of generations, lifts the Bard's poetic dialogue and gives it life beyond a stage production. For many it makes 'Titus' a feast for the eyes as well as the ears, while others have found Taymor's treatment of the material to be far too overwrought and heavy-handed, and its framing device one of many aspects of the superfluity of the film's unyielding, in-your-face design. While the film certainly benefits from Taymor's talented eye, and some terrific performances from Hopkins and Lange, there are some limits to how well all of it meshes together. For the most part, the varying depictions of warriors, conflict, and the media (and certainly Chiron and Demetrius' childlike consumption of it) are certainly captivating to watch, but for everything that works, there's an aspect of the symbolism that rings completely hollow at times, or otherwise suffers from being too on the nose in others. On the whole, though, 'Titus' comes off as such an ambitious production the various hits and misses of this particular interpretation will likely be as varied as the interpretations of the play itself.
Those who have not yet seen it may have already surmised that 'Titus' checks all the boxes when it comes to the necessities of revenge stories, as well as those pertinent to tragedies. While its tragic element is most certainly seen on-screen, in the form of all the suffering handed out (not a pun) to the various characters, it is perhaps more evident in how the wicked themes of 'Titus Andronicus' are still so relevant today, and how its text as well as Taymor's visual throughline of war, terror, mutilation, and worse, turn the spiral of death and destruction into an exploration into the very nature of violence itself.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Titus' comes from Twlight Time as one of a limited run of 3,000 copies. It is a single 50GB disc in the standard keepcase, which includes a 4-page booklet with an essay written by Julie Kirgo. There are no previews on the disc, and the extras are all from the previous DVD release of the film.
Given the stylish nature of the film, this release of 'Titus' has been watched for signs that the image will have been given an appropriate facelift, to help usher it into the realm of high-definintion. Although it seems as though there has been some digital work has been done to sharpen certain elements of the film, this transfer has clearly been lifted from an old master – which becomes readily apparent before the film even plays, as the Fox logo is littered with scratches and dust. And while the presentation of the film itself looks much better than the logo, the improvements over the previous home video release are nominal at best.
Looking at the image, it's plain to see why some digital sharpening has been done, as the overall look of the transfer is rather soft. There is persistent grain throughout, which isn't helped by the general dimness of the picture. Darker scenes (of which there are plenty) tend to look muddy, and the fine detail that normally would be present is taken down a notch, so that facial features are less prominent, and textures on clothing or background elements fades considerably as the object moves away from the lens. On the other hand, the one noticeable upgrade would be in the close-ups, as there are some instances where Hopkins or Lange will look better (not much, but some) than the DVD release, and there is some inkling of improvement in the image. Surprisingly, the film itself seems to have a consistent desaturated feel about it. When it seems like the colors should be bright and vivid, they tend to be more subdued and understated. Taymor herself has mentioned this was intentional, so we'll have to take her for her word on the lack of vibrancy in the picture.
Overall, considering how important the unique visual style is to how this film plays and is interpreted, the image here is a real disappointment. Its improvements over the previous home video release are frankly insignificant, and this fact will likely play a considerable part in people not flocking to purchase this release.
While the image is a major letdown, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a considerable improvement from what was offered before in terms of the sweeping, cinematic elements of the film's score and its sound effects. However, some questionable, but not terrible balancing issues can sometimes cause the effects and score to overwhelm the all-important dialogue. Thankfully, this occurs infrequently, and even when it does, the dialogue is not completely drowned out. The elements of the mix that are not dialogue do sound quite good. Elliot Goldenthal's score alternately bombastic and ominous, and is delivered primarily through the front channel speakers with great aplomb. Meanwhile, atmospheric elements are present throughout the film, and emanate from many different channels, though mostly from the rear speakers. This, in turn, creates a nice immersive feel to the film that enhances the viewing experience to a certain degree.
While the dialogue issue can be though of as another problem for the disc, the lack of proper balance only happens on occasion and does not really disrupt the flow of the film. There is some room for improvement, but unlike the image, the mix here feels like something of an upgrade.
This release of 'Titus' is one that many were clearly looking forward to, and considering the style and imagination that went into making the film, that is certainly no surprise. Unfortunately, the presentation on this disc is not going to be the high-definition upgrade many were hoping for. While the film is not necessarily negatively impacted, the impression this transfer gives is not too different from the DVD release, which is not going to be a compelling enough reason for many to want to own this. Additionally, for those who already own 'Titus,' there's simply no real incentive to double dip. In the end, the film is recommended, but the disc is only for those desperate to have a new copy, or their first copy.