Titus

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“Titus Andronicus” is infamous in the theater world for being Shakespeare’s most horrific play.

It’s not that the body count is terribly high — there are more deaths in “Hamlet,” for example — but that the play is all about cruelty, revenge, mutilation, rape, and even cannibalism. The general consensus is that Shakespeare wrote it simply because he knew it would be popular (which it was). If there is a point to all of the gruesomeness — as there is in “Hamlet,” for example — it’s well-hidden beneath all the blood.

Julie Taymor’s film adaptation, called “Titus,” does not, for the most part, pretend to be anything more than the horror story Shakespeare wrote. In fact, where the long, sprawling film falters is when it tries to be too “Shakespearean,” allowing the actors to get too flowery and proper in their delivery. Yes, Shakespeare wrote the play, but a sensible adaptation would not adhere too closely to that fact, since the Bard was hardly writing in his usual fashion when he churned it out. It would be like forcing too much terror into “The Green Mile” simply because Stephen King wrote the book.

Taymor’s “Titus” is set in ancient Rome, but it’s a surreal ancient Rome that has automobiles, newspapers and swing music, effectively contrasting it with the traditional Rome we’d expect from the Shakespeare who gave us “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra” (and giving more weight to the argument that “Titus” ought not force itself into the usual Shakespeare mold).

The story: Rome needs a new emperor, and rather than give the throne to either of the dead emperor’s sons, Saturninus (Alan Cumming) or Bassianus (James Frain), it’s offered to popular war hero Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins). He turns it down on the grounds that he’s too old (and he really has a point there), but endorses Saturninus, who is promptly crowned and, as a show of thanks, offers to make Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser) his queen.

Titus goes along with this, but no one else does. Seems Lavinia was previously betrothed to Bassianus, and he’s not going to lose the throne AND his fiancee, both to his brother, on the same day. So he grabs her and runs off, supported by Titus’s brother, Marcus (Colm Feore), and Titus’s four sons. Titus, enraged at being disobeyed, kills one of his sons and is ready to kill the rest of them before Saturninus stops him: Turns out he’s in love with the widowed Tamora (Jessica Lange) anyway, and wants to marry her instead of Lavinia, no offense.

So Saturninus marries Tamora, and Bassianus marries Lavinia. Everyone’s happy, right? Not for even two seconds, silly. Tamora is in love with Aaron (Harry J. Lennix), an evil, evil black man with whom she commits adultery. And Tamora’s grown-up sons Chiron (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) are upset because they both, suddenly, are also in love with Lavinia.

Spurred on by Aaron, they kill Bassianus, then each rape Lavinia. They then cut off her tongue so she can’t tell anyone who did it, and lop off her hands, too, replacing them with branches so she can’t write any notes.

It gets more gruesome from there. Titus chops off his own hand in exchange for the lives of his sons, who have been taken prisoner on trumped-up charges and who are then killed anyway. Everyone wants revenge against everyone else, and they pretty much get it, though Titus surpasses them all when he learns who Sticks-for-Hands’s attackers were and goes Sweeney Todd on them.

Though uneven overall, and definitely too long (the 10-minute opening sequence could have been cut altogether, for instance), “Titus” is marked by great performances by Hopkins, Lange and Cumming, just to name a few. Hopkins, in particular, is engrossing as the tragic, occasionally insane, father, and he’s a campy delight when he reprises his Hannibal Lector role in the finale. (That finale, by the way, features cannibalism, a neck-breaking, a stabbing-with-a-knife, and a stabbing-with-a-candlestick.)

It is the acting, in fact, that saves Taymor’s hit-or-miss directing and makes the whole thing watchable. Not pleasant, perhaps, and still occasionally hard to follow, but definitely an interesting piece of work that lives up to all the bloody madness Shakespeare intended.

B (; R, abundant male and female nudity, graphic sexual activity, and abundant blood and gore.)

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