"Titus Andronicus" is Shakespeare's early precursor to both "Lear" and "Othello," a searching out of themes and characters that he would later use to such shattering effect in the great tragedies. "Titus" gives us a father who misjudges his children and who, placing the stability of the empire above the life of his daughter Lavinia, betrays her by offering her in marriage to the monstrous young emperor Saturninus, instead of to the man she loves. And it gives us the fascinating villain Aaron, the precursor to Iago, a man who poisons everything he touches simply because he lives to do evil; but who, curiously, is a Moor like Othello.
Titus, the Roman hero, has come back from defeating the Goths and saving the empire, but naively places his trust in young Saturninus, who has just seized the throne in a coup. When Lavinia and her lover escape, the inexorable descent into the whirlpool -- fanned by revenge -- of betrayal, rape, torture, murder, and dismemberment begins. The betrayals, the acts of savagery, the goading and the gloating, the bloodletting and the hideous revenges, anticipate the Jacobean plays that were to come twenty years after "Titus." And like them this play cannot end until all crimes have been punished and justice meted out. Mercy is not an option.
Julie Taymor has adapted the play and set it against a backdrop of a kind of 1930s fascist Italy; the sets and vehicles date from that era, but unlike many critics I found the setting perfectly appropriate to the play. There is no attempt to modernize either the language or the costumes; only the sets and props are drawn from Mussolini's rule. Saturninus's throne is a breathtaking example of Taymor at her best: a huge steel-gray molded piece that looks like a 1930s vision of a car seat of the future, blown up to enormous proportions, in which little Saturninus sits like a child at the grown-ups' table.
For a work as complex as "Titus" -- and as fragmented and without the organic thrust and dramatic coherence of Shakespeare's later plays -- Taymor, in her first film, handles the direction with great skill. She choreographs her scenes well, she has a feel for the nuances of the language, and she gives her characters room to breathe. She is fortunate in Anthony Hopkins as Titus, who reads magnificently and makes this wilfully blind and misguided man believable. And Alan Cumming as Saturninus, a kind of villainous child who is accustomed to having every whim satisfied and every wish fulfilled, no matter how gross or evil, plays this underwritten role perfectly. Harry J. Lennix is Aaron, the Moor who bends everyone to his own designs, and he is also excellent, with his straightforward statements of his plans to pit all against all.
Jessica Lange, as the older woman Tamora, whom Saturninus weds when he cannot have Lavinia, is unfortunately weaker in her line readings, struggling with the language in more complex speeches, and so we lose the power she should show as she guides her little husband to bizarre crimes. I found myself trying to read along with her in the theatre, to help her find the meaning in her words.
But overall this is a worthy achievement that does no disrespect to Shakespeare or the play, and in fact gives it a setting and a look that will define the play for me in years to come.