Fall of the Roman Emperor

Titus

Sensationalism generally has a negative connotation, but, hey, sometimes sensationalism is, well, sensational. There's a reason why this stuff works century after century. Every era has its revenge tragedies, its Grand Guignol, its slasher films. Taymor -- who, perhaps ironically, made her name mounting Disney's The Lion King on Broadway -- knows that this stuff always has its place, and she knows that it's of a kind with circuses. So she gooses up this three-ring Titus with every flashy trick known to directors. We've all seen various anachronistic Shakespearean productions: On film Ian McKellan moved Richard III to the 1930s, and Kenneth Branagh transplanted Hamlet to sometime in the late 19th Century.

But Taymor effortlessly intertwines the modern and the ancient in a way that negates period. Motorcycles ride alongside chariots, radio-news microphones stand cheek by jowl with altars of smoldering entrails, Chiron and Demetrius play video games while people are run through with spears. The approach is the opposite of what Orson Welles did in Macbeth -- placing everything on a nearly blank soundstage -- but the effect is nearly the same: Taymor moves Titus completely out of time and into all time.

Hopkins seems quite at home here, combining his Shakespearean chops and his Lecter madness. The cast is generally first-rate, though Colm Feore is simply too bland as Titus' brother, and Rhys and Rhys Meyers are sometimes a bit much. But the standout is surely Lennix, who has the most interesting role. That Shakespeare links Aaron's blackness with his evil -- at least in wordplay -- may be yet another reason that Titus Andronicus doesn't get performed much these days. But taken as a whole, Aaron's character seems simultaneously both inexplicably evil and nobly human.

As Aaron, Harry Lennix is the Moor to end all Moors
As Aaron, Harry Lennix is the Moor to end all Moors

The film looks and sounds gorgeous. Stylistically Elliot Goldenthal's score goes from Nino Rota to Mahler to frenetic hard bop without missing a beat. If there is a slip-up in Taymor's overall design, it's in the blatant fantasy shots she occasionally inserts: Sorry, but a lamb with a human head just can't look convincing.

Commercially one has to wonder just who the filmmakers expect will show up for this wild ride. The older art-house crowd will likely be repulsed by the grotesqueness and violence, while those who would revel in its stylish outrageousness are unlikely to even realize what lurks beneath its classy façade. But its bizarre commercial prospects don't change the fact that Taymor has rescued this disreputable, neglected runt from the Shakespearean litter, staging it in a way that revels in its shortcomings and, in most cases, makes them virtues.

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