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The Silence of the Iambics: Anthony Hopkins smolders as a war hero whose family is brought to grief by an ungrateful emperor in 'Titus.'

Bloody Bard

'Titus' brings Shakespeare's strangely modern horror play to the screen

By Richard von Busack

THE FILM VERSION of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is simply titled Titus, but it's more like The Persecution and Assassination of Titus Andronicus as Performed by the Inmates of the Constellation Room of the Quasar Resort/Casino of Las Vegas--for $39.95 plus a two-drink minimum.

The detail that sums it all up: the costumes worn by actors Matthew Rhys and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (a pair of turkeys fit for a pie) as the evil brothers Demetrius and Chiron. The duo, disguised as "Rape" and "Murder," are got up as a leopard and an owl. Both look like extras in that episode of TV's Get a Life in which Chris Elliott and the ensemble perform Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber's forgotten musical Zoo Animals on Skates.

Director Julie Taymor is new to film, after having wowed the bridge-and-tunnel crowd with The Lion King on Broadway. Staginess abounds in the look of Titus, right from the early scene of the entry of armor-bedecked Roman soldiers who stop and do tae-bo steps.

It's one of those processionals that's the sure mark of the stage director let loose for the first time behind a camera. Remember the pageants that diluted the power of Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1935? Here they are again, tenfold. (These theater people never learn.)

And the opening scene of a little boy squashing his toys and covering them with ketchup is, I presume, supposed to illustrate something in the vein of King Lear's pronouncement, "Like flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport."

The ketchup kid represents just one vignette in the film's tidal-wave-of-baked-beans-style bad-trip English cinematic surrealism, a la Nicolas Roeg, Alan Parker and King Ken Russell--forgotten but not gone (which, all in all, creates appreciation for the relative good taste of Peter Greenaway).

Dante Ferretti's production design offers a hackneyed mix of new fascist motifs with ancient Roman touches--although there is a dandy orgy room with murals based on Attic vases and a Pantheon-style open roof.

Costume designer Milena Canonero once dressed the Droogs in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and is still in the patent-leather and chrome phase: 20-year-old industrial chic, in short. (Masquerading as "Revenge," Jessica Lange is seen waving black highway safety cones on her arms--look out, danger ahead.)

Did I hate Titus? No, actually, I often liked it. It's just that the gaudy frou-frou of Taymor's production interrupts the film's pleasures. The best scene gives us just Anthony Hopkins, Colm Feore and some rain-soaked ancient stones in the background. It's the moment when Titus (Hopkins) receives further bad news from his kinsman Marcus (Feore): "I bring consuming sorrow to thine age." Titus: "Will it consume me? Let me see it, then."

THE ROOTS of this blood orgy go back to Seneca's Thyestes, which tells of an early incident in the annals of the cursed House of Atreus. (Seneca was also the tutor for Emperor Nero--source for enough nightmares there.)

Titus Andronicus is a straight revenge play about the ungrateful Emperor Saturninus (Alan Cumming, vamping too much) and his whore-queen Tamora (Lange), who conspire to blast the family of the returning war hero Andronicus.

Loyal to a fault, Andronicus kills his own son for being a traitor. He is rewarded for his loyalty with the rape and hideous mutilation of his daughter and himself. Shakespeare's later victims of fate and royal malice turn and curse their gods in language the gods might envy. Andronicus, by contrast, has few stirring words. Mostly, he just gets payback, in terms that might be approved by the Crypt-Keeper in Tales From the Crypt.

There's more than one way to interpret Hopkins' recent remark that he was thinking of retiring after making Titus. Still, I believe he truly enjoyed himself. This is the most fun Hopkins has had onscreen since he was discussing which wine went with a human liver in The Silence of the Lambs. Too often in his films, Hopkins is a gloomy actor, an emoter of that emotion that does not have a word--but a word that, if it existed, would mean "the spirit of Welsh Sundays."

Occasionally, over-the-top work stimulates Hopkins: playing Picasso or vampire hunter Van Helsing, for instance. Here, he delivers not just broad comedy but fine and unfamiliar speeches that no other actor has put his stamp on in a film before. (The only other screen version of Titus Andronicus is the references to it in the Vincent Price satire Theater of Blood). Hopkins has a chance to match his technical skill as a Shakespearean with the physicality of a big movie and he revels in the opportunity--rolls in it.

One of the engineers of Titus' fate is Shakespeare's only grade-A stone psycho. All of the Bard's villains have a motive, even Iago (specific, if unjustified, hatred of Othello), Richard III (deformity, passed up for promotion) and Caliban (who was dispossessed of his island).

Aaron the Moor--played here by a terrific actor named Harry Lennix, who is made up with fetching tribal scarification--is the only one of the rogues' gallery to mock a dying victim for squealing like a pig ("Weke! Weke!").

He's the only one to boast--as the Kansas madman Carl Panzram would, centuries later--that his great regret is that he didn't kill more people before he was caught and killed himself. Moors were common villains in Elizabethan stage, but Lennix's Aaron is proud of the color of his skin. Either Taymor or Lennix had the inspired thought of boomeranging around the villainy to make it a backhanded protest: you call me black like a devil, I'll be a devil.

If I'm hard on the production design--never having a huge appetite for Fellini-goes-to-Soho--I do think it was a bold move to film Shakespeare's least-loved play. It certainly won't happen twice in our lifetimes.

Shakespeare's motive in writing a truly gore-hound extravaganza has been critiqued by the school of outright denial (this depressing awfulness couldn't have been written by the Swan of Avon!). Some, like critic Harold Bloom, have claimed that Shakespeare was satirizing the horrors of the Jacobean stage. A good argument is made, by the editors of the Yale Shakespeare, that Titus Andronicus was a collaboration or a revision. If that's true, then in a sense both parties are right: those who claim Shakespeare wrote it and those who deny it.

Another suggestion has it that if Shakespeare did write Titus Andronicus, he was a young man out to make a huge impression on the London scene with groundling fodder: rape, murder and dismemberment. If that's the case, the strategy worked. The Yale Shakespeare notes, "There was only one period Titus Andronicus ever could have been popular"--namely, during the age of the bloody Jacobean play--"and popular it was then, beyond all precedent."

Still, this skeleton in the closet of the Bard wasn't hauled out much until World War I, when the times were in tune with its atmosphere of random violence and nihilism.

Now it seems modern, with its heavy dose of the sheer hopelessness and slapstick horror that informs the spirit of many a contemporary movie. This adaptation by Taymor is more than a dirty pleasure--not because of her whacking bad-bad-taste décor and hideous psychedelic computer animation but because of the bracing contrast between high words and low deeds. Titus is often a weird and spellbinding spectacle: a trash movie with juice--human and otherwise.

Titus (R; 162 min.), directed by Julie Taymor, screenplay by Taymor, based on the play by William Shakespeare, photographed by Luciano Tovoli and starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, opens Friday at the Palo Alto Square.

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From the March 2-8, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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