Over the years, Shakespeare's works have been made into a great many films. The BBC, for instance, staged traditional performances of all of Shakespeare's extant works during the '70s and '80s; these are generally available at public or school libraries. But amid the glut of merely passable Shakespeare movies, the student of Titus has recourse to a gem. Julie Taymor's 2000 film adaptation captures the eerie, ritualistic, violent atmosphere of the play very well indeed. The film, almost as much as the text itself, offers a reliable guide to understanding the play's macabre humor and peculiar horror.
Taymor is especially attentive to the play's relish of spectacle. "Titus," she has said, "is about how we make entertainment out of violence." In this spirit, she creates many visual parallels to our modern culture of entertaining violence. She opens the film with a bizarre sequence showing young Lucius playing with action figures, violently bashing them together and spraying ketchup all over them to simulate blood. This game, it turns out, is being played in a house in the middle of an arena, from which he is rescued just before it explodes. The arena audience cheers. Such layering of spectacle occurs throughout the film, as does the blending of modern pop culture with ancient Roman designs and customs. Taymor's Titus, like Shakespeare's play, takes place in a setting that speaks to both the ancient and the modern, but whereas Shakespeare combines Elizabethan and Roman elements, Taymor weaves Roman traditions into a web of Americana. Titus and his bloody soldiers even move like action figures in their stunning entrance.
Then there are the performances. All of the major characters - a whiny, entitled Saturninus played by Alan Cumming, a brilliant and proud Aaron played by Harry Lennix, Jessica Lange's ravenous and vengeful Tamora - are wonderfully represented. Of course Anthony Hopkins, as Titus, is terrific as well. He is at once insane and calculating, simultaneously dense and cunning. He pulls off with equal dexterity the barbarous Titus who orders Alarbus' death and the tender Titus who forbids Marcus to kill a fly: the two Titus' coexist comfortably in the same body. Indeed, each character handles his or her own contradictions with equal flair and humor.
Taymor's movie is not wholly without its failings. Certainly the beginning is strange, and the ending - which is happy - may not sit right with traditionalists. Her film, however, is a gift to the cinematic genre. It makes the difficult leap into Titus' bizarre world all the easier for us, and reveals Shakespeare's play to be one of his most challenging and brilliant. Above all, Taymor is true to the language. Her actors speak their lines as if they are among the greatest ever written. When Tamora protests Titus' "cruel irreligious piety," or Titus complains, "If there were reason for these miseries, / Then into limits could I bind my woes," or Aaron asks, "Is black so base a hue?" who can disagree that we are in the presence of great poetry? Taymor's film rescues Titus from its unfortunate reputation and raised awareness of one of Shakespeare's most frequently overlooked works.