Chainsaw Cheerleader Reviews: A Reader Request: Titus (1999)

Directed by: Julie Taymor

Screenplay by: Julie Taymor

Written by: William Shakespeare

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Jonathan Meyers, Matthew Rhys

Genre: drama, period piece, play adaption


“Oh villains, Chiron and Demetrius. Here stands the spring whom you have stained with mud, this goodly summer with your winter mixed. You killed her husband, and for that vile fault two of her brothers were condemned to death, my hand cut off and made a merry jest, both her sweet hands, her tongue, and that more dear than hands or tongue, her spotless chastity, inhuman traitors, you constrained and forced. What would you say if I should let you speak? Villains, for shame, you could not beg for grace. Hark, wretches, how I mean to martyr you. This one hand yet is left to cut your throats whilst that Lavinia, ‘tween her stumps doth hold the basin that receives your guilty blood.” -Titus


Titus is the first film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play entitled “Titus Andronicus.” Titus is a revenge tragedy that is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works but also his most violent. Filled with brutality, murder, nudity, and  orgies, Titus peers briefly into the Roman empire. This gaze helps showcase the rapid progression of revenge and how it forces each character to cry out for blood.



Titus details the revenge cycle of a Roman general, Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins), and the Queen of the Goths, Tamora (Jessica Lange). Upon returning home from a hard won battle, Titus takes his Goth prisoners to the crypt in which his dead soldiers shall be housed. In order to appease those lost in battle, Titus sacrifices the eldest son of the queen. While Titus was away at war, the king died and he is offered the crown. Refusing the title, Titus declares that the king’s oldest son, Saturninus (Alan Cumming) be crowned. After taking the throne, Saturninus tries to make Titus’s daughter, Lavainia his bride. Upon hearing the news, Lavainia flees the castle with her fiancé, Bassianus, the new king’s younger brother. As Bassiianus, Lavainia, and her brothers run from the king, Titus is filled with shame and promises the king that he will right their wrongs. With the absence of Lavainia, the Goth queen talks Saturninus into marrying her. With the power and the recourses of a king behind her, Tamora plots her revenge. With the aid of her irresponsible sons and Aaron, her black servant and lover,  Tamora’s revenge brings about severed limbs, rape, racism, adultery, cannibalism, murder, and violence on a massive scale. It is only when Titus is driven to madness that he gains the upper hand.



Titus Andronicus is very different when compared to Shakespeare’s later work. It was written during the era when the revenge tragedy genre was most popular, the Elizabethan age. Titus Andronicus is different due to several facts: quicker pacing, greater violence, more sexuality, and taboo subject matter. Despite these differences, Shakespeare still presents the taking on of complex themes and  the creation of multifaceted characters. Besides revenge, some of the themes that Titus Andronicus takes on are ones sense of duty, obedience to king and country, justice, compassion, and absolution. While true to the play, Titus is faithful to these very themes.

The film’s director, Julie Taymor, is a stage director. As a stage director, Taymor is able to combine the environment of the theater with the realism and effects that only film can bring. Taymor proves that theater offers a great deal for film. While combing the theatrical styles of British theater and the American method of acting, Taymor uses a great deal of visual imagery to portray acts that many would rather not see. The best example of this is instead of showing the act of rape, Taymor uses symbolism. As the two son’s of the Goth queen rape Lavinia, the scene shows Lavinia holding herself while standing upon a pedestal as two large tigers leap toward her. While the scene is shot in the colors of blue and white, it is easy to understand what has happened as Titus says on more than one occasion that, “Roman is full of tigers.” Taymor was once quoted as saying that these abstract images are meant to portray the interior landscapes of the mind.



The entire film is artfully arranged and uses a limited color scheme of white, black, red, and blue. This lack of color emphasizes each character and his/her choices. This direction also allows an ushering in of a mixture of modernization and ancient Rome. While Titus is a surrealistic take on the combining of two different eras, Taymor did not try to set the film in its rightful historical period or change it to echo our modern society. The director presents Titus as a world separate from ours. This combination includes costumes ranging from togas to jazz era suits, activities shift from hunting to playing arcade games, driving chariots to cars, and events taking place in ancient ruins to modern day buildings. While the Romans listen to jazz during orgies and speak over 1930’s styled microphones, the jarring differences do not take away from the fact that just like in the time of Shakespeare, human nature is still human nature regardless of the time period. This blend of elements is almost confusing when during the first ten minutes of the film the viewer is not completely aware that this was done on purpose. The opening scene of Titus takes place in a modern kitchen. As a young boy, who later turns out to be Titus’s grandson, violently plays with action figures an explosion blasts through the kitchen window. The child’s father then runs into the kitchen, scoops his son up, and exits the house. Upon exiting the house, the two enter an ancient coliseum just as Titus returns from war and displays his dead soldiers before them. As the film progresses, the confusion subsides and each change fits.



The difficultly with Shakespeare is that it often does not translate well to film. The dialogue is often too complex to be spoken in a natural manner. Titus has done what many films could not, it made Shakespearean dialogue seem like normal everyday conversation. What complements Titus and allows the film to achieve this is its outstanding cast. Each actor, main and supporting, is truly talented. There are very few actors who can take on the role of Titus. Anthony Hopkins easily shifts between a duty above all else general to a tortured father slipping into insanity. It is roles such as this that reminds the viewer why Hopkins is regarded as a superior actor. Jessica Lange as the Queen of the Goths, Tamora, presents her character with grace, a silver tongue, and pure hatred. Alan Cumming is enjoyable to watch as Saturninus. While coming across as insecure and impressionable, Cumming is able to add the childlike quality that helps define the type of king that Saturninus is.



It is clear that from the beginning of the film until its end that Taymor tried to communicate to her audience some form of social commentary about humanities lack of progression throughout the ages. While not coming across as preachy, Taymor leaves the viewer to make this connection on their own. If one disregards the message of the film, they still will be thoroughly entertained. One example of this occurs when Lavinia’s uncle discovers her silently standing on a stump near a swamp. After he begs her to speak to him, she turns to him revealing that her hands have been severed and replaced with twigs. Her uncle demands to know who has done this to her and as Lavinia tries to answer him, she reveals that her tongue has been cut from her mouth as blood pours from her lips. A second example of this takes place toward the end of the film. While sitting in a bathtub, drawing pictures with his own blood on sheet after sheet of paper, Titus hears his name being called from the garden behind his home. Looking out the window he sees three figures, two of which are dressed as tigers.  The figures call themselves the spirits known as rape, murder, and revenge. After briefly speaking to them through his bathroom window, Titus exits into the garden. Playing the mad fool, he pretends to not know who the three that stand before him are. Titus then invites them to dinner. It is this conversation that leads to the climax of the film, which ushers in cannibalism, murder, filicide, and Titus’s ultimate revenge.

While some may find Shakespeare dry, Titus proves that there is more to the playwright then stories of unrepentant love. In order to watch Titus one does not need to have to understand what the character’s are saying or even know what the play is about to begin with. Each scene is so neatly crafted that even if one was to watch the film on mute they would know exactly what it happening. One does not need to enjoy Shakespeare to enjoy Titus. The film is beyond any Shakespearean play that one was forced to read in high school English class. It is about the most primeval of human desires, revenge and how like a fever it peeks.

Titus receives a 7 out of 10


One Response to “Chainsaw Cheerleader Reviews: A Reader Request: Titus (1999)”

  1. Yep, I’m pretty much in step with you on this one. Taymor is pretty fucking brilliant conceptually and visually, but she’s really hit or miss in other areas. I’m not sure if she’ll ever completely put something together, but at least she has some gifts and isn’t boring.

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