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Titus, directed by Julie Taymor, is a dazzling, stylish rendition of Shakespeare’s early tragedy Titus Andronicus. From the startling beginning to the murderous end, we are caught up in a world of revenge, violence, passion, and conflict, presented with visual artistry and top-notch performances from a cast that includes Anthony Hopkins in the title role.

Titus: Special Edition
Titus opens with an unexpected scene: a young boy is playing with toy soldiers in an increasingly frenzied manner, when strange figures burst into the house and snatch him away; they reappear on the floor of the Roman Coliseum, where a legion of ancient Roman soldiers march in, moving with the slow rhythm of a dance. These are the soldiers of the Roman general Titus, bearing home his dead sons from a war against the Goths. And from here the movie progresses onward from stateliness into the darkest depths of the human soul... and back again.

The child, who eventually becomes identified with the boy Lucius in the play, acts as a stand-in for the audience. Drawn in unwillingly, the boy is at first an outside perspective on the events, horrified by the cycle of violence that the characters are caught up in. Gradually he becomes more and more involved, just as the viewers do.

Taymor’s Titus is staged with an original and startlingly effective form of modernization. The setting is a surrealistic version of the modern day, with hints of ancient Rome in the architecture, clothing styles, weapons, and so on. There’s no attempt whatsoever to set the film in the real historical period of ancient Rome; neither is it “updated” to our own current society. What we have is a world of its own, where elements like cars and arcade video games serve not as anachronisms, but as reminders that the events of Titus could be today’s events. Taymor’s innovative staging reminds us that the core issues of the film (revenge, justice, madness, humanity) are issues of human nature and will always be with us in the modern day just as in Shakespeare’s time. As an enthusiast of accurate period drama, including Kenneth Branagh’s more historically accurate Shakespeare films, I was perhaps slightly biased against Taymor’s experiment... but she handles the material with a clear, consistent artistic vision, and won me over wholeheartedly.

The heart of the film, of course, lies in Shakespeare’s gorgeous language, which Taymor presents unchanged except for the necessary editing out of some scenes to bring the length of the play down to movie length, and in the complex characters. The acting is top-notch, which is no mean feat considering that Shakespeare’s dialogue is, though beautiful, also very difficult to deliver in a natural way. Anthony Hopkins is perfect as Titus, taking the character from a stiff-necked warrior who sees duty as the be-all and end-all of his life, to a tormented, all-too-human father on the verge of madness. Jessica Lange as Tamora, Queen of the Goths and Alan Cumming as Saturninus also turn in memorable performances. The supporting cast is also excellent; really, there isn’t a weak performance in the lot.

Titus: Special Edition
I was initially concerned that I’d have difficulty following the story of Titus, since this was the first Shakespearean movie I’d seen in quite a while without having read the play first. However, there was no need for concern, as it was entirely watchable without knowing anything about the story beforehand. The play itself is fascinating; in many ways it feels quite different from Shakespeare’s other plays. Titus Andronicus is in fact one of his earliest plays, and draws on the popular “revenge tragedy” genre of the Elizabethan period. But while its pacing and sheer bloodiness is somewhat unlike his later plays, there is the same creation of complex characters and the same dedication to tackling difficult themes as we see in his later plays. Throughout the play, and thus throughout the movie, supported by the visual imagery, are woven the themes of justice and mercy, of duty and reasoned obedience, and of revenge and forgiveness. There is no easy resolution to any of these opposed themes in Titus; drawing conclusions is left to the audience.

Titus has gotten the transfer it deserves in this special edition. The anamorphic 2.35:1 image shows a few very minor flaws in the print, but otherwise it looks superb. Taymor has chosen a limited color palette of mostly blues, reds, black, and shades of gray. The DVD presents these colors vividly and vibrantly, and provides good contrast for the subtleties of the blacks and grays. The picture quality is especially to be appreciated considering the very visual nature of this film: every shot is artistically arranged, as if it were a painting.

Titus is much more visually-oriented than sound-oriented, but there's some nice use of surround effects nonetheless. The Dolby 5.1 track adds realism to the presentation of environments like blowing winds outdoors, or the babble of a crowded party.

The music score is decent but not memorable, certainly not matching the visual standard set by the film. I was disappointed to notice that the music does occasionally overpower the dialogue; in a Shakespeare film, of all films, it’s important to be able to have crystal-clear dialogue.

Titus: Special Edition
Titus comes with a second disc for its special features, and it’s put to good use indeed. The information in the extras made me realize how much more there was to the movie that I hadn’t even absorbed on the first watching.  

A 50-minute documentary feature on the making of Titus offers an interesting look behind the scenes. Fortunately, this is a true making-of feature, not the “promotional” kind that’s padded with clips from the film. It definitely offers an interesting look at the preparation that went into making Titus, as well as getting comments from the actors about their feelings about the film both during and after production.

A thirty-minute excerpt from a question-and-answer session features Julie Taymor discussing Titus following a showing of the film at Columbia University. Taymor addresses some fascinating issues regarding her interpretation of the play and her directing choices. She comes across as thoughtful and provides a lot of insight into the interpretation of the film.

Other special features include "Penny Arcade Nightmares," a short piece on the dreamlike visual sequences in the film, two text articles about the film from American Cinematographer magazine, a costume gallery, a set of theatrical trailers for different audiences, an audio commentary on the film by Julie Taymor, an isolated music score with commentary by composer Elliot Goldenthal, and a scene-specific commentary by Anthony Hopkins and Harry Lennix.