Titus Andronicus is by far the weirdest play Shakespeare ever wrote. It’s got some of the grossest deaths in his canon and it’s by far the meanest. It’s a revenge story of a disgraced Roman general wiping out the family of the emperor that allowed 25 of his 26 kids to be murdered, raped, mutilated or some combination of those three. There’s themes of the cycle of violence and political corruption in here, but they’re at the very edge of the periphery of a play most famous for the hero of the story killing the sons of his enemy and feeding them to their mother in a meat pie Sweeney Todd style. It’s a mean little play, and expects its audience to feed on that meanness like hogs eat slop. This play is so vicious and so simplistic that it’s usually considered the worst thing Shakespeare ever published. We’re talking so far down on the list that people don’t think he even wrote it. The question for a modern audience is whether or not this play is even relevant in a modern context. Does this play have something to say Bill’s better plays don’t? With literally dozens of other possible works to film, does Shakespeare’s first play have a place in the landscape of Shakespeare films?
Christ help us, this film really tries. For whatever merits the content of the play may lack, Julie Taymor (who made that Frida Kahlo biopic) went all in polishing this turd into the weirdest movie ever made with a budget of almost $20 million dollars. On paper, this movie has a ton going for it. Anthony Hopkins plays the lead role of Titus Andronicus. Hell yes. Jessica Lange plays his enemy, the much-abused murder-hoochie Tamora and she’s great. Alan Cumming plays the tyrannical Emperor Saturnine, mincing through every scene like the drag ball version of Adolf Hitler with John Connor’s Terminator 2 haircut and he’s just as delightful as he always is. Even the more minor roles are weirdly stacked. Henry Lennix is snarling and creepy as Aaron the Moor, Johnathan Rhys Meyers is one of Tamora’s dirtbag sons and that guy who was Robert the Bruce in Braveheart does his best with a do-nothing role as the only one of Titus’ kids to survive the play. Truly an A+ cast plopped square in the middle of a C- play with art direction that can only be graded with a confused shrug.
The look of this film makes it impossible to place in any historical context. It’s not a straight reproduction of a standard ancient Rome with togas and crap. It’s not a fully modern update like Baz Lehrman’s Romeo + Juliet was. It’s a combination of the two that melds together into a non-sense flavored soup. The opening scene is some kid playing with toy soldiers in his kitchen before it’s bombed straight to hell and he’s transported into the world of Titus Andronicus. Andronicus and his army (dressed up like toy soldiers in gray paint) march into the Coliseum, Goth prisoners in tow. He sacrifices the eldest son of the Goth Queen Tamora and burns his entrails in a brazier to satisfy the high school classroom’s worth of sons that died defeating her army. This starts a cycle of vengeance where Tamora marries an Emperor weak and cruel in equal measure and spends the whole movie trying to ruin Titus’ life. Hands are cut off, royal brothers are murdered, sons are executed and Titus’ daughter gets her neck snapped by her own father for being a rape victim.
It says something about this movie that a story with this level of gore has that gore fall by the wayside in comparison to how weird it all looks. Hopkins starts the movie dressed as a Roman general, gladius and all. Twenty minutes in and everyone is dressed in Mussolini style black uniforms and driving around in 1940’s touring cars like the Blackshirts just marched on Rome. Sometimes soldiers in the background have swords, sometimes they use guns. Sometimes they’re dressed like legionnaires, sometimes they’re dressed like the SS. Sometimes the characters are dressed up like Roman politicans, sometimes their in military uniforms out of a Latin American banana republic. Tamora’s two kids have bottle blond hair and spend most of the movie dressed like they’re trying to get into the worst discotheque mid-90’s Europe could produce. There’s precisely zero discipline to the look of the movie. It changes visual styles on a whim, going from scenes in palatial white Roamnesque rooms to just regular houses. It’s confusing to watch, but a lot of the appeal of the movie comes from waiting to see just what the next scene is going to look like because you gave up trying to guess by Act II. Titus’ loyal troops are dressed up as mafia hitmen and firing arrows into a Roman bathhouse? Sure. Johnathan Rhys Meyers puts on a bra and French harlot make-up to try and drive an old man insane? Why not? Both of these scenes occur in this movie, and they whip a whole pile of asses.
Thank God this movie looks so crazy, because long stretches of this thing are boring. This isn’t the kind of Shakespeare play with jokes and clever turns of phrase that make the Shakespeare nerds swoon and normal people laugh occasionally. Aside from one joke Aaron the Moor makes about banging someone’s mom, this play is aggressively not funny. There’s no love story and the characters that aren’t boring are unlikeable monsters. It’s meant to drag you from murder to murder until it ends after almost three hours. The only thing that gets you through some stretches of this is movie is that it looks like precisely nothing you’ve ever seen on film before. The acting is fine and everyone tries their best with the Dollar General Shakespeare they have to work with. To it’s credit, this movie picks way the hell up in the last half hour, with Anthony Hopkins slitting throats and dancing like Michigan J. Frog around a fancy banquet in a Swedish Chef outfit, mocking Jessica Lange for unknowingly eating her own children. In this final scene someone’s neck is stabbed, someone’s murdered with a candlestick and one poor bastard gets shot in the face in a 300-esque instance of slow-mo over a decade before Zac Snyder inflicted that trick on the culture at large. It rules.
Oh, and the plays treatment of race sucks. Aaron the Moor is responsible for a lot of the blood, but characters in the play harangue him for his skin color more than anything else. Harry Lennix takes a break from playing a complete bastard to display some level of dignity in trading blows with the characters that make those remarks and he’s great at giving a shred of sympathy to the most evil guy in the movie. That doesn’t undo scenes where a black infant is wrapped in newspaper while a room of adults try to figure out how to kill him. Or when they put that same baby in a cage. It’s jarring to the point of being disgusting.
This movie has a ton of problems. It’s a long, uneven slog with just barely enough pay-off at the end to make it worthwhile to sit through. It’s scattershot aesthetic however, makes it truly unique not just in terms of Shakespeare adaptions, but film in general. Watch it. See how far you can get before you need to take a break. When you come back, you’ll find it’s a truly unique looking film that you might even like a little bit.