Theatrical directing hotshot Julie Taymor, whose Broadway version of The Lion King was lauded for its stunning design, creates a visually ravishing debut feature film with Titus, adapted by the director/screenwriter from William Shakespeare's earliest play, Titus Andronicus. But the source material is so gruesomethink Medea crossed with The Texas Chainsaw Massacrethat no amount of stylization can keep the viewer's appetite from sickening and dying.
Titus is one of those blood-and-thunder epics that starts with human sacrifice and goes steadily downhill, with virtually none of the comic relief that informs other Shakespearean tragedies, such as Hamlet or King Lear. The two principal vengeance-seekers, Titus and the former Goth Queen/current Roman Empress Tamora, are played by Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, so the iambs get respectful treatment. Harry Lennix is riveting as the Moor Aaron, Tamora's lover and possibly the most vile villain in theatrical history. And Alan Cumming is, as always, a campily greasy delight as the debauched and petulant Roman emperor Saturninus, whose path to the throne was unwisely cleared by the noble but too rigid Gen. Titus.
But a mix of Roman armor with guns, horses with funny little tinny tanks, and other anachronisms grows wearying, especially over a running time of nearly three hours. And when combined with a litany of horrors that really is unendingrape, hand-chopping, throat-slitting, beheading, burial alive, meat pies made with human flesh, etc.the film grows mind-numbing. Taymor should have looked to Ian McKellen's breakneck, drastically trimmed Richard III of a couple of years back to see how modern-dress Shakespeare can be adapted to the screen. Then she might have given us a bloody good show, instead of just a bloody one.