Review: Titus

Posted: January 17, 2012 in Artistry, Cinema, Culture, Media, Narrative
Tags: ,

I’ve wanted to see the movie Titus since it came out in 1999, and it finally made its way to the top of my Netflix queue. It’s directed by Julie Taymor, who has risen to fame and prominence as a director of movies, operas, Broadway shows, and other theatrical productions. Titus is the earlier of her two film adaptations of Shakespearean works, the second being The Tempest (2010).

Anachronistic resetting of operatic or theatrical works is a narrative device that sometimes works marvelously and sometimes renders the work unwatchable. Though not Taymor’s work, I turned off the movie Romeo + Juliet (sometimes given as William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet) reset as the story of rival gangs in Verona Beach (or was it Venice Beach, CA?), and I once played in the pit orchestra for Mozart’s Magic Flute staged as a Texas western (“Whale, howdy hay, y’all!!). In Titus, Taymor’s high concept blends without trace of apology ancient and modern Roman locations (some actually being Croatian), Weimar Germany decadence (citing Nazism and cabaret culture), and 1980s American kitsch. The costuming is similarly inventive and mismatched. While plain and obvious to the eye, these devices in Titus don’t detract as needless distractions or heedless destruction, though they do come across as rather self-aware. And like most other resettings, one should not really notice but simply go with it. However, especially when opulent production values practically scream for attention and the shifts between visual themes snap one’s head back and forth jarringly but without comment, I can’t help but to take special notice.

Titus joins a fairly crowded field of movies based on Shakespearean plays. I may be unusual in that I still feel some obligation to know this bit of our cultural heritage, even though I come to the plays primarily through movie adaptations and have never really considered them in print or read them aloud in classrooms or elsewhere. I read the beginnings of a couple online reviews, and though others critics are doubtlessly far more knowledgeable than I am about Shakespearean canon, I didn’t really care that it’s an early work of his (chronologically, no. 6 of 37) and therefore reputed to be not as fully developed thematically as his later works. It’s still got the rich, allegorical language and brutal, tragic elements.

Rendering late middle English intended for the stage into natural-sounding language is always tricky, and the actors fare well in Titus. One big advantage of viewing a DVD is that one can turn on captioning and track the speech visually as well as aurally. It was a big help for me, though it still takes quite a bit of decoding and a curious cognitive shift to hear that style of language as fluid. (And of course, many of Shakespeare’s references and allusions go right over my head.) Titus may be fortunate not to contain any of the more famous Shakespearean quotes. The other standard DVD bonus feature is the director’s commentary, and though I’ve only yet heard the first few minutes, Taymor starts by describing narrative choices rather than making technical observations (who cares what lens or what kind of dolly shot?) or relaying dumb anecdotes. In my experience, only a few movie commentaries are equally erudite and interested in discussing storytelling (The Name of the Rose and Something’s Gotta Give spring to mind).

I recommend the film, and it’s easy to see why Taymor earns the attention given her. I viewed Titus in perhaps 5 or 6 segments (the film runs rather long at around 2:40:00), but I intend to see it again and then hear the commentary in full, probably neither in one sitting (such is the modern world with its fragmented attention).

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