Bard at His Bloodiest In Julie Taymor’s Titus

Julie Taymor’s Titus , based on the play Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare, would strike the more learned admirers of the Bard as a curious, almost incomprehensible choice from his oeuvre for a movie in any other times but our own. Consider the most grotesquely gruesome entrance in all dramatic literature, “Enter the Emperor’s sons, Demetrius and Chiron, with Lavinia, her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravished.” Poor Lavinia! But fear not. Shakespeare will serve up the infamous rapists and mutilators, Demetrius and Chiron, three acts later to their own mother Tamora, formerly captive Queen of the Goths, and now Empress of Rome. As a culinary delicacy. And who is the master chef on this occasion? Why, none other than Titus Andronicus himself, father of the ravaged Lavinia, and a kind of Roman Hannibal Lecter, who is played, appropriately enough, by Anthony Hopkins, an actor adept at both Shakespearean blank verse and Oscar-winning cannibalism.

This Marlovian parody, much stronger in revenge rhetoric than in the dramatic development of its characters, has been castigated by no less a cultural authority than Harold Bloom with his summary judgment that “though there is a nasty power evident throughout the text, I can concede no intrinsic value to Titus Andronicus .”

Ms. Taymor obviously thought otherwise and summoned all her wizardry with mise en scène on display on the stage in her triumphant The Lion King . Some of her cinematic gestures have paid off, some have not, but, on balance, she has fashioned a consistently absorbing entertainment that never becomes either campy or facetious, given its inescapable exaggerations. Take the 24 sons of Titus Andronicus … please. Twenty have been killed in battle when the play and the movie open, and three more will follow their siblings before all the incessant intrigues are fully unraveled.

Through all the carnage, Titus persists in an obstinate and perpetual foolishness that makes Lear and Othello look like shrewd judges of character. First, he picks the wrong man to be Emperor, even though Alan Cumming as the chosen Saturninus employs all of his considerable negative charisma to project a smirky evil so amusingly and brilliantly obvious as to make Titus seem mystifyingly mischievous. Then he tries to thrust his daughter at the leering Saturninus even though she has been promised to the nobler Bassianus, who has been passed over for Emperor by the clueless Titus.

When Bassianus and Lavinia defy the Emperor’s edict by running off together, Titus is so outraged he kills his own son, Mutius, for assisting the two lovers. Even when Titus becomes belatedly disenchanted with the cruel and dissolute Saturninus, he falls prey to Aaron the Moor, Tamora’s secret lover and apostle of prideful evildoing looking backward to Marlowe’s Barabas and forward to Shakespeare’s own Richard III and Iago.

The magnificently manipulative Aaron persuades Titus to allow one of his hands to be amputated and presented to Saturninus in exchange for Titus’ two imprisoned sons. They are returned after a fashion, with their heads in two jars along with Titus’ own severed hand. This leads to a piece of stage and screen business that reads as dementedly funny as it plays. Says the terminally chastened Titus in an I-mean-business mood to his patient brother Marcus: “The vow is made. Come, brother, take a head,/ And in this hand the other will I bear./ And, Lavinia, thou shalt be employ’d in this;/ Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.”

And Lavinia does, good sport that she is. Laura Fraser does what she can with the thankless part of Lavinia, but her unyielding sobriety is nonetheless commendable. In the more dominant parts, Jessica Lange as the vengeful Tamora, Mr. Hopkins as the hapless Titus, and Mr. Cumming as the sleazy Saturninus are comparatively known quantities in their expressive excellence, but the big surprise for me at least was the electrifying portrayal of Aaron by Harry J. Lennix. Talk about subtexts. With all his Elizabethan prejudices and outright bigotries, Shakespeare could never stay completely outside his blackest villains, literally and figuratively.

If Ms. Taymor has miscalculated at all, it is in the possible commercial crossfire between the more squeamish lovers of Shakespeare who hate any violence in movies, and the action crowd who can’t believe that Shakespeare could be as horrific as any current fright merchant.

More Violence, This Time From China

Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin , from a screenplay by Wang Peigong and Mr. Kaige, has aroused a wide range of reactions from both the critics and acquaintances who had seen the movie before I did. Now, after having seen it myself, I can understand why people who admired Mr. Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993) and Temptress Moon (1996), found The Emperor and the Assassin less clearly focused and less emotionally compelling than its predecessors. I would argue, however, that Mr. Kaige has attempted something here more ambitious and more difficult than is to be found in his previous works. He has gone back to the third century B.C. for the story of a king who gained the whole known world of his time and place, and lost his soul and his beloved in the process.

The Emperor and the Assassin is a violent film by genteel standards, but if it has a Shakespearean parallel, it is not Titus Andronicus , but Coriolanus . Like Coriolanus, Mr. Kaige’s Ying Zheng, King of Qin (Li Xuejian) finds his public life hopelessly tangled up with his emasculating family roots. Like Coriolanus (and perhaps Douglas MacArthur as well) Yin Zheng becomes a great martial force tragically remote from the people he professes to serve.

Mr. Kaige’s plot of poignant remembrance and restored legitimacy reminds me in a purely cinematic context of Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Taira Clan (1955) and Empress Yang Kwei-fei (1955), and, strangely also, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in The West (1968). It is in this realm of cumulative emotional climaxes that Mr. Kaige falls short of Mizoguchi and Leone. His problem lies in the serpentine twists of his narrative which diminishes his film’s dramatic velocity and virtually eliminates its sense of implacability and inevitability.

On this occasion, the supposedly unifying thread provided by Gong Li’s mystically moral arbiter Lady Zhao is more the problem than the solution in the loss of emotional momentum. Though she is the indispensable link between the Emperor and the Assassin story-wise, she is also a distraction as the unrealistically mobile instrument of history’s changing fortunes and perspectives. For all its overpoweringly exciting spectacle, too much of The Emperor and the Assassin is reduced to symbolic pageantry. The most memorable characterization is that of Wang Zhiwen’s Marquis Changxin as he leads a failed coup against the King, and confronts his doom with a climactic explosion of brazen arrogance worthy of Aaron the Moor.

If I keep linking The Emperor and the Assassin with Titus Andronicus together in the new millennium, it is because both Ms. Taymor and Mr. Kaige have gone deep into the past to demonstrate allegorically that violence will always be with us as an inescapable byproduct of the human condition, and the political processes it embraces.

A Fiennes Family Affair

Martha Fiennes’ Onegin , from the screen-play by Michael Ignatieff and Peter Ettedgui, based on the verse novel Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), is still another adaptation of a literary classic that comes close enough to the original to qualify as a richly rewarding and highly entertaining experience for moviegoers who don’t move their lips when they read. For the rest, there is always Adam Sandler.

Onegin is very much a Fiennes-family enterprise with Martha Fiennes directing her brother Ralph in the title role, and Mr. Fiennes serving also as executive producer and unbilled collaborator, and brother Magnus supplying the music. The Russian society world of 1820 was a milieu Pushkin knew firsthand. Indeed, he died in a duel over an unwisely flirtatious woman just as Onegin’s close friend, Vladimir Lensky, dies at Onegin’s reluctant hand in the movie.

Having rejected Tatyana Larin, who has rashly declared her love for him, Onegin imprudently comes on to Tatyana’s engaged sister, Olga, at a ball, and is challenged to a duel by her fiancé and Onegin’s best friend. Disconsolate over having killed Lensky, Onegin leaves Russia to travel abroad. When he returns to St. Petersburg, he discovers that Tatyana has married his cousin, Prince Nikitin. He discovers also that he has belatedly fallen in love with the woman he once rejected. What to do? All I can say is that the ending is somehow quintessentially Russian.

In addition to Mr. Fiennes, the splendid cast includes Martin Donovan as Nikitin, Toby Stephens as Lensky, Lena Headley as Olga, and such still-vibrant torchbearers of character acting as Harriet Walter, Irene Worth and Francesca Annis in lesser roles. In this company Liv Tyler surprised me , at least, by being surprisingly if stoically affecting as the love-struck Tatyana.

Powell Revival

A recommended revival is Michael Powell’s 1937 The Edge of the World from Jan. 14 through 20 at Film Forum 2, 201 West Houston Street. I once gave a course in the three greatest British directors after Hitchcock. These were Powell (1905-1990), Carol Reed (1906-1976) and David Lean (1908-1991).