"Titus," adapted from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, is an ambitious, well-acted film. Although the film feels a bit long, at roughly 2 hours and 45 minutes, the film is carried well by fine performances by Sir Anthony Hopkins and Alan Cummings and fantastic performances by Jessica Lange as the deliciously evil Tamora, the Queen of the Goths whose fate becomes intertwined with Titus, at whose hand she is captured, and Harry Lennix, a cast member from Taymor's theater presentation of Titus Andronicus, as Aaron, the Moor.
While Julie Taymor, the film's director, established herself in the theater and is a relative newcomer to filmmaking, she, the cinematographer, and the set designer have come together to create a really visually stunning film. The colors of the film are often striking and come through boldly in their contrast. The sets are extremely impressive and it is evident the great pains which the filmmakers endured to truly realize their version of Shakespeare's vision. There is often a great interaction between the characters and the scenery around them, as it often mirrors the mood or dilemma of the character. While often apparent to the viewer, this is pointed out in a number of other scenes by Taymor in her commentary, as she states that she is "supporting Shakespeare's language with an image."
In addition to the tremendous performances by many members of the cast, also deserving of special mention in this film is the composition of the film's score by Elliot Goldenthal. Mixing both the classic medieval accompaniment and jazz to represent the film's more modern moments, the music never overpowers the film but strengthens it and flushes out the emotions of the scenes throughout the film.
While many of Taymor's stylistic and interpretive decisions enhance the film tremendously, there is one stylistic choice that backfires rather significantly. Claiming that the time period in the film is varied in Shakespeare's work, Taymor seeks to "create our own time" by integrating into the medieval time period, present day conventions, including cars and microphones, Taymor's intended effect is largely missed. These interspersed anachronistic mechanisms only really serve to distract the viewer and pull them oddly out of the depths of the story, forcing them to reorient themselves. It is rather annoying, whether such a technique was endorsed by Shakespeare's shaping of Titus' story or if it is solely the providence of Taymor.
In two scenes in particular, Taymor seeks to use present day settings to emphasize her point about violence, truly to the detriment of the film. First, Taymor begins the film in present day, showing a young boy in a paper-bag medieval mask and many toy soldiers from the past and present day, as he acts out a horribly violent scene between the various toys, in which he ultimately destroys many of the toys and much of the kitchen, before he hears alarms and is ultimately pulled to safety, finding himself in ancient Rome. The boy plays a role throughout the film, but there is never any explicit connection between the boy in the opening scene and that in Titus' family. While the opening scene is no doubt presented to show the regular presence of violence in society and its normalcy in the boy's life, the scene does not really feel as if it rings true. The violence seems too extreme and too archaic to reflect how such a boy would act and starts the film off on a bad foot, although once the real story begins, the film is able to get back onto the right foot. Secondly, in the scene in which Tamora's children celebrate their own foul deeds, the two play graphically violent video games with a mix of rage, jubilation and anarchy. The explicitness with which Taymor seeks to make a point about violence in present day society is so overstated that again, it serves to distract and turn the viewer off from the film. This is not to say that Shakespeare cannot or should not be adapted for present times. It has been done so with great success in the recent Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and Ethan Hawke's Hamlet. Here however, the intended effect is lost and it only seems to detract from the film
The interpretation of one of Shakespeare's most graphic works is a one that pulls no punches in translating the story to the screen and contains a number of scenes which might be difficult for those especially sensitive to violence. While the blood is not always shown on-screen, the suggestive staging is enough to disturb those who are easily upset. As can be expected from Shakespeare, much of the final moments of the film are quite disturbing and graphic.
While in a few instances, Taymor's direction appears a bit misguided, she does a fantastic job of fleshing out both the story and the characters and adapting it well for the screen. At no time during the film does it feel like the transition from play to film is awkward, and the casting in this film adds tremendously to the enjoyment of the film.
Titus is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The transfer is very impressive and the tremendous colors of the film comes through quite vividly. The skin-tones of the film appear quite accurate, and there are few, if any imperfections in the print. All in all, this film looks great with tremendous clarity.
Titus is presented in booming Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. The language is a bit challenging at times, and the volume occasionally to fully appreciate Shakespeare's language. The score of the film sounds fantastic and the sound is strong throughout the film in music, dialogue and sound effects.
This is one, technically two, stacked DVDs. The film is supplemented by a feature-length commentary by Director Julie Taymor, an isolated musical score with commentary by Elliot Goldenthal, and scene-specific commentary for 16 extended scenes of the film, by Sir Anthony Hopkins and/ or Harry Lennix. Thus, between the film, the director's commentary, the composer's score and commentary, and the scene-specific commentary alone, there is almost 10 hours of entertainment.
The isolated score/ Goldenthal commentary - While the audio track I would usually be least likely to listen to, the isolated score track really is impressive. While there are many moments of complete silence, as Goldenthal speaks only when he has specific insight to offer about his musical interpretation of the scene, usually only once per scene, the experience of just taking time to listen to the score and hearing its soft subtleties and its often booming presence, placed with the imagery onscreen is extremely impressive and enjoyable and well worth the time. In truth, Goldenthal's insight, although quite interesting seems to upset the great presence which the film's score has in isolation.
Director Julie Taymor's commentary- The principal feature-length commentary track is quite enjoyable. Despite the fact that it is almost three hours of one person talking about the experience of making the film and the story itself, it is interesting and worth the additional time commitment. The commentary often provides insight as to the locations used in the film, the process of staging the story of Titus Andronicus for both the stage and screen, the actors involved in the story and the subtleties of the scenes' staging, the themes present only in the background or setting, and the small items not easily noticed. It is quite intriguing to hear the extent to which the Director used subtleties of wardrobe to demonstrate the metamorphises of a number of the characters in the film. Further, listening to Taymor's commentary regarding the blending of the time periods of the story may ease some of a viewer's distaste toward the presence of modern conventions. While the commentary would perhaps have been even better if it were recorded with the Director, Lennix, and Hopkins together, the Director's commentary adds significantly to the film and is worth the time to listen to the commentary.
The Scene Specific Commentary- Most of the sixteen scenes for which additional commentary tracks were recorded feature comments by both Lennix and Hopkins, however, they are not recorded together. Rather, it features the comments of each related to each scene. Nevertheless, in a majority of these scenes, there is only limited commentary and large portions of the scenes are left without comment. Like the other two commentary tracks, the viewer is ultimately rewarded for listening to these tracks, as Lennix adds a lot to the scenes through his comments and really deeply examines the character of Aaron, whom he describes as Shakespeare's first real villian. Hopkins, in the first scene provides a great degree of insight into how he became a part of this movie, his previous experiences with Shakespeare's play, as well as a number of other plays by Shakespeare, and how he envisions this film as his Shakespearean swan song.
All three of the commentary tracks are worth listening to, however, listening to all three tracks may be a bit too much. It is best therefore, for the viewer to stretch these out over a number of days, so as to allow the viewer to enjoy the unique perspective each presents, without being completely overwhelmed by the film DVD. Nevertheless, that is only Disk 1.
The second disk of Titus features a number of other bonus materials, including the "Costume Gallery," a look at the sketches of the costumes to be used in the film; "Penny Arcade Nightmares," a five minute feature on the making of a few surreal nightmare scenes of the film; Two film trailers and four television spots, showing the many different aspects of the film which were emphasized in different ads; a thirty minute question and answer session with Julie Taymor held at Columbia University, with questions posed both by the moderator and Columbia students; two articles from American Cinematographer which can be read using the directional buttons on the DVD remote; and finally, a 49 minute documentary on the making of Titus. Though only five minutes long, the Penny Arcade Nightmares feature examines the techniques employed in the creation of a few of the most vivid scenes in the film. The feature shows how the flaming limbs scene was made, how the limbs were made to rotate, how the limbs were constricted, and how it was put together. In addition, the feature examines the "sacrificial lamb" scene in which the angels are scene by Titus flying overhead and a sacrificial lamb is shown bearing the head of Titus' slain son Mutius, and the dream-like sequence in which Livinia relives the nightmare of her experience as she attempts to write in the sand. These are three wildly different types of scenes and it is enjoyable to be given a quick insight into the making of these scenes.
The costume gallery is also a fairly interesting, fairly quick jump into the often vivid costumes used in the film, as the viewer is allowed to see all the many sketches which ultimately grew into the costumes which appear on screen.
The question and answer session is a nice inclusion on this DVD. Attending a college in which such question and answer sessions with famous directors were rather frequent occurrences, I have often missed having the opportunity to directly confront the director on his or her artistic vision. While here, the viewer cannot do so, at least the viewer may be present to hear the questions of students with some concerns or questions that may be similar to those which the viewer might have. The only negative aspect of this addition, is that a lot of Taymor's comments have already been expressed in the commentary track. Therefore, the Q & A session may seem a bit repetitious.
Even the behind the scenes documentary goes above and beyond that which a usual behind the scenes documentary offers. Here, the viewer can truly follow the progression of the film through each and every of its principal stages of development. While the actors speak about their characters, the viewer may follow the director and actors as the director explains her vision of the film for the first time, as the actors and actresses do a read through, as they discuss their characters with each other, as they rehearse certain scenes, as they film scenes from the movie, and as they score the film. It is as impressive a behind the scenes documentary as I have seen. At almost all times, the actors and actresses appear rather unguarded, and this, more than many other such documentaries truly makes the viewer feel as if he or she is there as the entire process unfolds.
Finally, the two American Cinematographer Articles, "A Timeless Tale of Revenge" and "From Stage to Screen" are quite interesting and informative. The first article discusses the many modern updates to Shakespeare plays which have been released in the past few years. It goes on to examine the uniqueness and the modernity of this latest vision, including an description of the types of camera lenses used in the film, and much of the minutiae that went into staging and lighting many of the elaborate scenes. The amount of detail in this article is absolutely incredible. Although many viewers would likely just gloss over this bonus material, it is an astounding feature and provides an insight like few other DVDs have offered as to the making of a film.
The second article provides background information on Taymor, most famous for directing the stage version of "The Lion King" and contains an interview with Taymor about her filmmaking and the transition, both for herself and for "Titus" from stage to screen. The interview is rather lengthy, and provides the viewer with yet additional insight into both the film and Taymor's creative vision. These two articles truly do add a lot to this DVD.
While there are a few aspects of this film which detract to a certain extent from its overall enjoyment, the film is definitely worth watching, and the DVD is one that serves to redefine just how much can be added to the viewing experience with a special edition DVD. While the graphic nature of the film might turn more than a few people off, and the 2 hour 45 minute length may be a bit long for some, this film is definitely worth the time and effort. The film is driven by the astounding language of the Bard and some truly fantastic performances, particularly those of Lange, Lennix and Hopkins. While the bonus materials which accompany this film must be viewed over a decent span of time to truly enjoy all that this amazing special edition has to offer without being completely overwhelmed by the expanse of this DVD.