Personal Favorite Review: Titus (1999)

Shakespeare has never looked so weird.

  • For future reference, whenever I label a review as “personal favorite” without the usual subheading in the post title and whatnot, that means I’m doing a retro review of a personal favorite of mine. As I’ve said before, I’m trying to make this blog a little more positive, but since that’s not going to happen if I stay in the present, I figured let’s instead go to the past.
  • That and I don’t think many people have actually heard of Titus, let alone seen the movie adaptation. It’s one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays, which is ironic given that it was his very first tragedy and achieved a lot of attention back when it first came out, and the film isn’t exactly popular either. It bombed hard at the box office, critical reviews aren’t that great, and time hasn’t exactly done it any favors. Not sure if I’d call Titus cult, but it definitely doesn’t have the same recognition as any of the adaptations for Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet
  • Oh and in case you were wondering, yes I do revisit these personal favorites to make sure they still hold up before review. Tastes change over the years after all, plus revisits can wear down the rose-tinted glasses pretty damn easily. I mean hell, look at all the people who turned on Gravity when they watched it outside the theatre.

This little piggy went to market. This little piggy raped a bitch.

  • Titus Andronicus is a play about a Roman general engaged in a cycle of revenge with a woman he took as a war prisoner and married off to one of his sons, with the film adaptation simply being called Titus and directed by Julie Taymor. Who’s Julie Taymor you ask? She’s sort of like the Rie Matsumoto of the film world in that she’s one of the few present-day directors really pushing the boundaries of their respective mediums, made some great initial stuff as a result (Titus and Frida were basically her Kyousogiga), and then her later stuff ended up sucking because the chances she took ended up backfiring (Similar to my reaction to Kekkai Sensen, I absolutely hated Across the Universe for butchering what I loved – the Beatles – into an unenjoyable mess).
  • Titus is by far my favorite thing she’s made. It is a pretty long film, that much can’t be denied (almost three hours). But it packs so much detail with every frame dedicated to making the tragedy feel epic that the slow pacing can be forgiven somewhat. And believe me, this is not just a simple tragedy. The original play set records for how many deaths occurred in it, and that carried over to the actual film itself since it’s pretty faithful to the source material. Yeah compared to a few exploitation movies I can name, it’s not that high a body count, but you can bet that every death will make you feel something whether you like or hate the character due to how well-developed they are.
  • Notice, I say well-developed. Not necessarily likable. Pretty much every character, including the hero we’re supposed to be rooting for, is a bit of an asshole. About thirty minutes in, you see Titus kill his own son for trying to stop him from getting the woman he promised another one of his sons to be wed to. While the guy has no problem defending his family if they stand by him, just disagree with him a little bit and your ties are more severed than a divorced couple.
  • So of course, they have to make the characters opposite of the whole revenge scheme even more unlikable. After marrying his son, as well as the new emperor, to war prisoner Tamora, she decides to use her new-found position to make him pay for destroying her home and killing one of her sons. This leads to a series of events where Titus loses his own children, his daughter-in-law is turned into a literal scarecrow after being raped, Tamora gives birth to a black baby due to having an affair with a jackass named Aaron, and Titus strikes back with a method that involves the word “pie” – and no I’m not talking about a Great Escape-like pie fight.

Alan Cumming has never looked as dignified as he does here

  • All of these characters are hilariously dark, which makes for a great evil v.s. evil battle. There’s some good people thrown into the mix like Lucius and Young Lucius because we need pathos somewhere, but mostly you’re in this film for Titus and his enemies as they try to kill each other in very complicated ways. Oh, and to see what anachronisms and time periods made its way into the story. Yeah, did I mention that Titus is one of those adaptations where the director messed with the original time period so there’s a lot of present-day elements existing in what’s supposed to be the 1500s? As such, you’ll be seeing a lot of strange elements like Saturninus driving 90s-era cars or Demetrius playing in an arcade. Or Young Lucius himself, an original character to the tale who’s dressed like he’s a boy from suburbia.
  • This style of storytelling is obviously nothing new. Lots of operas do this nowadays, and who can forget what Baz Luhrmann brought to his adaptations of Romeo and Juliet or The Great Gatsby? I think anime-wise, the closest comparison would be Gankutsuou, Un-go, and Aoi Bungaku. However, Titus is one of the few I’ve seen where the different costumes and settings from all these different time periods complement the story perfectly, whereas the less said about Romeo + Juliet, the better.
  • As I said, with the exception of Young Lucius – who only shows up occasionally to observe what’s happening and talks to the characters like once or twice – the story and dialogue are pretty much the same as the play. The anachronisms are just a tool to make the adaptation more lively and they do a really good job for the most part. I loved the final scene where Lucius forces a giant spoon down a guy’s mouth as if to choke him to death, only to pull out a gun and cap the motherfucker in the head in a theatrical manner. And the reveal that an audience was watching the events unfold the entire time like it’s supposed to be a play, yet Titus’s murders were very much real was also a nice touch.
  • While not all of the anachronisms and directorial choices enhance the tale, I can’t think of any that distracted from it like putting Eddie Murphy in a tale about Chinese people going to war. And the tale is pretty strong in of itself. It’s an epic revenge story that you’ll probably know the ending to early on, but the ride there is pure camp with great characters, costumes, set pieces, and all that sense-pleasing stuff most visual fans love.
  • Admittedly, the Shakespearean dialogue can be a bit hard to understand at times unless you turn on the subtitles – and even then that’s not a guarantee. But maybe that’s just me, since I’ve always had a problem interpreting old-school prose. And watching anything without subtitles in general. Sorry, my ears just aren’t that good.

Hey kid. What are you doing here? And what’s with your weird clothes?

  • Titus is the kind of risk-taking adaptation of classic source material that’s just as timeless as what it’s drawing from, and that’s really the best praise you can give something. It never goes too post-modern, it never feels like you’re watching five different films at once, and it breathes new life into its source whilst staying faithful to it. These are pretty much the same kinds of risks that made Aoi Bungaku one of my favorite anime of all-time, and I hope we’ll see something similar to their level again someday.

Minor Quips

  • I’m probably not going to review my favorite anime, because I’ve talked about them several times over the years and while I didn’t do a good job of it in retrospect, I think I’ve beaten on enough dead horses with this blog by now.
  • I haven’t seen any of Julie Taymor’s stuff after Across the Universe, so maybe they’re actually good, although the critical response to The Tempest isn’t promising.
  • It might have been more fitting to review Groundhog Day today, but then I realized how tired looking at that movie is, so I scrapped the idea.

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