William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is widely considered his worst play: his first tragedy possibly written in league with others and openly copying more celebrated stage works by contemporaries Kyd and Marlowe. It’s a visceral revenge tragedy, filled with mutilations, death, and incalculable sorrow and doesn’t always provide understandable motivations for characters’ actions as the best Shakespeare plays do. Nevertheless, stage director Julie Taymor, helming her first film after mounting a celebrated stage version of the play five years earlier, has made an unusual hybrid of a movie: wildly theatrical and yet also embracing the language of cinema with boundless enthusiasm. It’s a bit too long, and there are indulgences that might have been eliminated (her "Penny Arcade Nightmares"), but the performances alone make it worth watching, and it falls into the curious pile of Shakespeare screen adaptations (like Coriolanus and Love’s Labor's Lost) that didn’t especially catch the public’s fancy.
Distributed By: Twilight Time
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA, English 5.1 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 2 Hrs. 42 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-raykeep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 01/21/2014
Returning triumphantly from a lengthy war against the Goths, General Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) arrives in Rome at the death of its Caesar and with his two sons Saturninus (Alan Cumming) and Bassianus (James Frain) jockeying for the crown. Though the crowd wants Titus to be crowned emperor, he supports Saturninus for the honor and offers his daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser), who had previously been betrothed to Bassianus, in marriage to the new monarch. Titus has also returned to Rome with the Queen of the Goths Tamora (Jessica Lange) and her three sons, but when he kills the oldest one and Titus’ sons refuse to allow their sister to marry the unstable new emperor, Saturninus frees the Goth captives, marries Tamora, and allows her remaining sons Demetrius (Matthew Rhys) and Chiron (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) along with her aide (and lover) the Moor Aaron (Harry Lennix) full run of Rome. Tamora plots her bloodthirsty revenge on Titus and his family using the Moor and her sons as her weapons of destruction. It’s only when Titus has reached his lowest ebb that he’s finally shaken from his torpor by his kindly brother Marcus (Colm Feore) to avenge his own losses and humiliations.
The Production Rating: 3.5/5
Director Julie Taymor (who also adapted Shakespeare’s play for the screen based on a stage production she had helmed five years earlier) has tried to mingle the Roman era with more modern trappings of war, wardrobe (everything from togas to punk and Goth clothing), and transportation, but it’s an uneasy, self-conscious alliance seeing Roman chariots occupying the same space as World War II tanks and modern cars and motorcycles or modern suits wrapped in Roman togas. It’s undeniably flashy and unique but not necessary at all to the storytelling, and all of the really important plot points of the play don’t require anything but the proper period trappings (otherwise, the mute, handless Lavinia could grasp a fountain pen between her teeth or use a typewriter and write out the names of her attackers), so it’s a stylistic motif without much purpose. Taymor certainly combines her theatrical and her camera eye to provide vivid pictures: a wedding bacchanal (which uses jazz music, another nod to the modern world) and a later orgy sequence are quite arresting to watch, and yet despite the play’s über-violence (the aspect that actually made it a great favorite with Elizabethans), she’s careful to contain the bloody gore and horrific mutilations off screen or just out of eye line. Those who are fearful of following Shakespeare’s poetry should have no fear: this is one of his least literary works (though there certainly are some lyrical passages) and is very easy to follow by action alone.
The performances are superb almost to a person. Anthony Hopkins, despite a character who vacillates between towering power and mewling wretchedness, dominates all of his scenes, and one waits with eagerness to see the lion once again reign triumphant within him as the play reaches its conclusion. Jessica Lange, who had never before acted Shakespeare, does herself proud as Tamora, an earthy avenging angel (or devil) who relishes the power she commands over her husband and her sons. Harry Lennix as the calculating Aaron is the essence of evil, proud of his menace and apologetic to no one for the havoc and sorrow he’s wrought. Alan Cumming makes a vainglorious, blindly foolish Saturninus, James Frain is his polar opposite as the even-tempered and honest Bassianus, and Angus Macfadyen gains in power as the film runs as Titus’ oldest son Lucius. Matthew Rhys and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are vilely memorable rapists and mama’s boys as Demetrius and Chiron. Colm Feore almost alone represents a reasonableness and sanity that’s sadly lacking among most of the principals.
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is presented in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness ranges from good to excellent, but there are inconsistencies. Though the film isn’t that old, there are occasional dust specks that crop up (especially noticeable around the ninety minute mark) and momentarily distract. Color is nicely controlled with very believable skin tones. Black levels likewise range from good to outstanding, and shadow detail can be impressive. The film has been divided into 12 chapters.
Video Rating: 4/5 3D Rating: NA
The disc offers two options: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround or 2.0 stereo mixes. Each has its strengths. The 5.1 offers a very good spread of the Elliot Goldenthal score through the soundstage and naturally has more surround activity with ambient sounds. But the dialogue is rather lackluster and a little underwhelming in this mix. It’s more forward and forceful in the 2.0 stereo mix which might actually be the preferred sound mix for the film since the words are an important part of the storytelling.
Audio Rating: 4/5
Audio Commentaries: there are three on the disc. Writer-director Julie Taymor takes the first one solo, and it’s by far the most illuminating of the three commentaries as she notes many experiences about making the movie throughout while occasionally dwelling too much about what’s on-screen and what it represents. Elliot Goldenthal concentrates as he should on the music used in each scene and describes his decisions for it. The third and least interesting surprisingly is the track which features actors Anthony Hopkins and Harry Lennix who don’t do a lot of talking.
Special Features Rating: 4/5
Isolated Score Track: Elliot Goldenthal’s music is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo.
Penny Arcade Nightmares (5:16, SD): Kyle Cooper of Imaginary Forces shows and discusses the production of the four hallucinogenic compilations used at pivotal moments in the narrative.
The Making of Titus (49:09, SD): this four-part featurette shows excerpts of the meeting of the cast, their introduction to the set designs, the original table read, the three week rehearsal period with blocking and characterizations being worked out between the director and the actors, the actual shooting, and the scoring of the movie. Throughout, the major actors and director Julie Taymor comment.
Q&A – Columbia Film Group (34:33, SD): a group of students enrolled in Columbia University’s Film School participate in a question and answer session with the director and host Dan Kleinman.
Theatrical Trailers (each 2:31, SD): two trailers are on the disc
TV Spot Ads (2:08, SD): a montage of four TV ads.
Six-Page Booklet: contains black and white and color photos, the poster art on the back cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s enthusiastic take on the film.
Julie Taymor’s Titus, a striking, singular take on Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, is given an above average high definition release on this Twilight Time package. There are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested should go to www.screenarchives.com to see if copies are still available. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.
Overall Rating: 4/5
Reviewed By: Matt Hough
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