More than 400 years ago, when Shakespeare was still a pup and not yet in love with Gwyneth Paltrow, he wrote the ultra-violent Titus Andronicus and got his ass kicked by critics. Later, T.S. Eliot called it “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.” Luckily, director Julie Taymor wasn’t scared off. A stage legend for her work on The Lion King, the extravagantly talented Taymor makes Titus her film baptism by fire, and to hell with a G rating.
For starters, a vid-kid playing soldier at home is swept off to ancient Rome, where Titus (Anthony Hopkins in full, flinty vigor) and his troops have just defeated the Goths. Taymor choreographs the men like dancers who might leap into a jet out of West Side Story. The mix of swords and automatic weapons, chariots and limos, primitive drums and heavy metal suggests arty, pretentious bullshit. But Taymor’s visual and visceral flair makes Titus a grabber.
So does the acting. Jessica Lange as Tamora, the captured Goth queen, seethes with sexuality and vengeance. She’ll stop at nothing to earn a power base, including marrying the effete emperor (Alan Cumming, in a repeat of the deviant routine that won him a Tony for Cabaret) and seducing Aaron the Moor (the brilliant Harry J. Lennix in the film’s standout performance). Hopkins lets it rip after his daughter (Laura Fraser) is found raped, with her tongue and hands cut off. In a gotcha move worthy of Hannibal Lecter, he chops up two of Tamora’s sons and serves them to her in a steaming pot pie. Catching the passions that drove the Bard during his Pulp Fiction period, Taymor gives young Will his dazzling, disreputable due.