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Starring Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange
Screenplay and Directed by Julie Taymor
Based on the play by William Shakespeare

IN SHORT: Shakespearean slaughterfest

It just goes to show how good Shakespeare's writing was; you can do almost anything to it, reset it in time, space, race, anything, and it'll stand up. So a hearty congrats to director Julie Taymor, 'cuz I don't know what the hell she wanted to do to "Titus Andronicus," now titled Titus.

You put two A-list names at the top of the title card and the expectations are already built in. Those devotees of the Bard (and the rules of the site prevent comparing to Source Material) walk in with their own conceptions, which may or may not be met by the performers. I walk in hoping that the convolutions of language don't get in the way of the story. Most of the productions seen over the last five years manage that hurdle nicely. Titus has some problems in its first 30-40 minutes, but I think that's more because Julie Taymor is throwing a kitchen sink of images and sounds at the viewer; it's like being stuck in the middle of no man's land on a battlefield.

Symbolically, that's the point. We see a fairly modern kidlet (Osheen Jones) simulating a bloody battle with Roman soldier action figures on the kitchen table. Lots of ketchup for blood. There's a WWII London look to the flat, whose door is kicked in by a Centurion. He saves the boy as bombs blow the place to smithereens.

This, for obvious (!) reasons, leaves us in the middle of the Coliseum where victorious Roman soldiers do a highly choreographed procession involving motorized tanks and plexiglass enclosed prisoner transports. And we're still in the title sequence. So let's crunch this down.

Titus Andronicus (Hopkins) has brought home the spoils of war, including the captured Tamora (Lange) Queen of the Goths and her family. The Goth people are, apparently, none too loyal. The eldest son becomes a human sacrifice to honor the Goth mercenaries who fought for Rome. Next up, some political intrigue in which Titus refuses to be made Emperor of Rome, leaving the crown to fall on the head of Saturninus (Alan Cumming). Saturnyne promptly banishes his brother Bassianus (James Frain) and Titus' daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser), his brother's betrothed, whom he covets. Saturninus then marries Tamora, making friends with the Enemy and setting Father against banished son.

Tamora, for her part, has vowed that she will utterly and totally destroy Titus and everyone he loves, as vengeance for the murder of her son. Her helpmate in this role is Aaron the Moor (Harry Lennix), whose "soul is as black as his skin." The racial card plays prominently in the story so, if this causes you grief, you are warned.

Titus happens to be one of Shakespeare's bloodiest plays,. Besides the sacrifice you get a couple of beheadings, some self-mutiliation, a couple of murders and some torturous behavior offscreen which I won't go into here. As Titus goes ever increasingly mad, and plots his revenge, the Roman court orgies to swing and jazz music. It's all quite distracting, visually, from the Shakespearean language, meaning it took much longer for my ears to get in tune with the times. Taymor, and Hopkins, even manage to get a visual joke out of a pop-top can of soda. Again, visual distractions.

There's an entire section involving the capture and torture of Aaron that hits the screen unexpectedly, leaving me with the feeling that something has been chopped out. That happens with adaptations. That "sense" hurts Titus, because it means that despite everything tossed on the screen, including numerous speaking roles and subplots I've left out, Hopkins and Lange (and Taymor) have managed to keep the basic thread of "you killed mine, I'll kill yours" on track until the bloody conclusion.

It's not slice 'n' dice Shakespeare, but there's plenty of gruesome stuff in here. Visually, it's overwhelming. Dramatically, less so.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Titus, he would have paid...


Titus ain't Shakespeare 101.

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