“If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.”
Going into Shakespeare Week, I didn’t expect too many surprises in terms of plot. Even if I had never seen or read a version of the specific plays before, most of them are just general knowledge at this point. Or, they’re loosely based on historical fact, so I have that to start with. But with Titus I had never heard of Shakespeare’s play or knew a single thing about this adaptation. It’s good to still be surprised by something that’s hundreds of years old and written by the most famous writer the world has ever known.
Caesar has died, and while his two sons (Alan Cumming as Saturninus and James Frain as Bassianus) rush to claim his throne, the people of Rome choose the recently returned Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins), the victorious army commander, as their leader. But, Titus refuses and endorses Saturninus. When Saturninus decides to take Titus’ daughter and Bassianus missus, Lavinia (Laura Fraser) as his wife, Bassianus and Lavinia run off to be together. While Saturninus settles for Tamroa (Jessica Lang), Queen of Titus’ recently defeated enemies and current trophy of that defeat.
Disgraced by his daughter and feeling betrayed by his sons who help her make her escape with Bassianus, Titus tries to balance his loyalties to his family with his loyalties to Rome. But when there are rapes, murders, conspiracies and frame ups happening all over the shop, it’s not long before he starts to fall apart.
Set in no real time and no real place, Titus combines locations and structures that are thousands of years old, with art deco modernism. Cars and machinery, with horses and wagons. Roman togas with fascists uniforms of Mussolini’s Italy. Soldiers fighting with swords, but blowing off steam with video games. This is the kind of thing that would usually infuriate me, with its flights of fancy and refusal to honor any sort of consistent reality. But for some reason, it all just works here, creating a fantastical world that is never as infuriating as it would seem if described to me.
Is Titus mad? Is he sane but pretending to be mad to trick his enemies? Is he mad, but in that madness thinks he’s only pretending to be and to trick his enemies? I could never tell, but I could see that Anthony Hopkins is just amazing. He makes Titus powerful and admirable, impetuous and petty, confident and assured, decimated and destroyed. I think I always just assumed Hopkins was a pretty decent actor, but I don’t think I ever really thought about what that assumption was based on. Now that assumption has a point of reference, Titus.
With a lot more experience in plays, musicals and operas, director Julie Taymor’s stage pedigree is immediately obvious and responsible for all the best bits of Titus. There might not be songs or dances (well, there are one or two dances, but this isn’t that kind of movie), Titus still looks gloriously choreographed down to the most minuscule movement of every actor and prop on screen. And instead of making it seem staged or fake or over rehearsed, it gives the movie an amazingly fluid feel.