Which is accelerating faster, the rate at which modern filmmakers exploit the works of Shakespeare or their inability to devise worthy material of their own?
True to form, someone's trying to "improve" on the Bard's first play, "Titus Andronicus," by modernizing it. That someone is Julie Taymor, one of the bright stars of the stage and the first woman to win a Tony Award for a Broadway musical ("The Lion King"). Her overlong, hyperviolent "Titus" is an update, all right, but it's hard to consider it an improvement.
The story, at least, remains the same. Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) returns to Rome after defeating the invading Goths and, following religious custom, ritualistically kills a Goth prisoner of war. The sacrificed party, however, is Alarbus (Raz Degan), the son of the Goth queen Tamora (Jessica Lange). When Saturnius (Alan Cumming), the new emperor of Rome, marries Tamora, she exacts revenge against Titus' family by having her two remaining sons, Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) and Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), ravage Titus' daughter, Lavinia (Laura Fraser). Titus then shakes off some postwar emotional doldrums to pursue his retribution.
Taymor sees parallels between this wrathful violence and the warning signals that emanate from our contemporary culture. Into the story's various amputations, homicides and incidents of cannibalism, she inserts some anachronistic elements. Tamora's sons are addicted to video games and heavy metal; Titus' warriors have action-figure doubles; neo-classical buildings merge with the decaying ruins of the originals.
It's all very theatrical. But it requires stamina: At 161 minutes, the film is simply an ordeal. It requires a strong stomach, because Taymor is no shrinking violet when it comes to bloodshed. And it requires a careful ear, as the Elizabethan language remains in place amid the modernized settings.
Hopkins infuses Titus with a warrior's bearing, but his stubbled countenance looks tired much of the time. Lange plays Tamora with a controlled wickedness that's only sporadically effective. Her portrayal rests on a such a literal plane that her motives are obvious; we viewers wonder why we're the only ones who see through her scheming.
Taymor's greatest conceit is to frame the story within the imagination of a child who daydreams away while sequestered in a modern-day kitchen. Decide for yourself just what that accomplishes, or if Shakespeare might approve.
In fact, discussing "Titus" is more fun than watching it. It's a coffee-table book of a film, useful to Avon die-hards but little more than an out-of-the-ordinary decoration to the rest of us.