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Review: 'Titus' long on images, short on content
(CNN) -- Stage director Julie Taymor, who rightly received rave reviews for her semi-avant-garde Broadway adaptation of Disney's "The Lion King," knows genius when she sees it. And hers is apparently more profound than William Shakespeare's.
Taymor's first theatrical film, "Titus," is based on one of the Bard's less-heralded works, the rather adolescent, morbidly violent "Titus Andronicus."
But storytelling seems of relatively minor concern to Taymor. Large segments of "Titus" serve as nothing more than showcases for her outlandish sense of production design. It's already been established that she's a daring, inventive director. Now if she could just figure out when enough is enough.
The first act may be enough for most people, but there are two more wacky, Taymor-iffic hours to go after that.
Some naysaying critics have already compared this work to the films of Ken Russell, an accurate if rather harsh assessment. There's not a film maker alive who could look as supremely foolish as Russell did in his mid-1970s heyday. You're not likely to out-vulgar Roger Daltrey straddling an inflatable penis in "Lisztomania" (1975) or Ann-Margret inexplicably rolling around in a heap of pork and beans in "Tommy" (also 1975).
But Taymor is definitely on the same wavelength as Russell. "Titus" features so many grotesque sets and over-the-top costumes, she actually manages visual shrieks.
Revenge most bloody
The story follows a bloody revenge duel between Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) and Queen Tamora (Jessica Lange), his former prisoner of war who eventually becomes the wife of the new Roman emperor (Alan Cumming).
When Titus held the cards, he disemboweled one of Tamora's sons as she begged for mercy. Now Tamora is looking to get even, and you can rest assured that heads, hands and entrails will roll.
There's not a great deal of depth to the play; it's basically a series of brutal set pieces with Shakespeare's masterful monologues serving as the connective tissue. But lack of content may well be the reason Taymor chose to tackle it. It gives her more room to throw arty elbows.
Taymor apparently is interested in establishing that humanity has always carried, and still carries, an inborn need for savagery. She drives the point home with a mallet by including a ridiculous prologue in which a present-day 11-year-old boy (who inexplicably has a paper bag over his head) goes ape while playing with a bunch of warfare-based toys. Then the kid wanders wordlessly around for the rest of the film, gawking at elaborate acts of violence that are taking place in Shakespeare's Rome, or somewhere.
Centurions and bikers
Taymor's seeming inability to discard an idea sets the stage for a mishmash of periods that initially grab your attention, but soon grate like nobody's business.
Some characters are dressed like garden-variety centurions and ride around on horses. Others cruise the mean streets of Rome on souped-up motorcycles. The emperor addresses crowds through a 1940s-style broadcast microphone. Some men wear modern suits with ties; others look like white-jacketed waiters at an upscale steakhouse.
Cumming's emperor sports a full-length leather coat and rides around in a limo that's covered with a "Popemobile" Plexiglas box for extra protection. His throne is eight times larger than common sense would dictate and looks like a recliner that's been fashioned out of sheet metal and rivets.
The music alternates between electronic sludge and bebop saxophone solos backed with rockabilly guitars.
There are, of course, moments of great power and beauty.
Taymor, who apparently reads her press clippings, is a very talented woman who seems wholly convinced that she's a mad visionary. One dreamlike sequence is especially haunting. Titus' daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser), has had her hands hacked off by Tamora's treacherous sons. When her uncle discovers her, she's standing against a slate-gray sky with crooked twigs protruding from the stumps.
It's an intense, haunting image, but that doesn't make the overtly stupid stuff any less embarrassing. Both Hopkins and Lange do solid work but remain nothing more than time-killers between Taymor's visual upchucks. You keep waiting for someone to march out dressed like a kitchen sink, or as the entire history of indoor plumbing.
<"Titus" is violent, but not in the crowd-pleasing manner to which filmgoers have grown accustomed. There's sex, nudity and copious bloodshed. At one point, stump-laden Lavinia is instructed to pick up her father's self-butchered hand with her mouth. And she does it! As obedient children go, this is light years beyond merely making the bed. Rated R. 139 minutes.
'Titus' director fights ratings officials
Official 'Titus' site
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