This is my second Shakespeare adaptation of 1999, yet the two films couldn't be more different. Not just because one is a comedy and this is a tragedy, but the approach to filming Shakespeare is different. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the whole of the film could be on a stage, and the focus in on performances. In Titus, the idea is to take some of the strange notions of the film and to turn it into a surrealist cinematic revenge fantasy.
First, the text. This might be the most brutal of Shakespeare's plays. There is murderous justice, amputations,rape, false accusations, and so much more violence that is difficult to describe. It might be torture porn for the late 16th century. It's intention is to shock, to stir in us a lust for revenge, to see the final actions of the play to be just. In the end, however, it is just a opportunity to speak of the futility of revenge, and the horrible nature of those who take part in it. Since this is an early Shakespeare play, we might not be surprised to find the characters two-dimensional and myopic but given the nature of revenge theatre, this is not a bad thing. There is no Hamlet or Macbeth here, debating the nature of their actions and their consequences, no self-doubt. Every actor is completely convinced in their paths, even if the full sum of their lives be evil.
The play was dismissed and rejected by critics for centuries, but this movie gives it a rightful place in entertainment history. It is a surreal deconstruction of violence in any age- whether personal or national. Soldiers in a mass-dance celebrating their bloody victory; a world of blues and blacks and greys; a woman with sticks poking out of her arm stumps; fascists scream in ancient Rome, flags flying; a boy's fantasy of war with action figures and ketchup become real. This is a real work of imagination, a Lynchian nightmare drenched in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.
This sounds like a horrible experience, but there is one release-- the gore takes place off screen. This film doesn't revel in blood and guts. The target of the horror is not the churning stomach, but the churning heart. We wince at the actions not because they show too much violence, but because of the depth of evil and depravity that occur. Anthony Hopkins turns from a noble Odin figure to Hannibal Lecture in this film. Titus feigns insanity, but the insanity that truly captures his heart is one of bloody vengeance, and every horror unfolds to another more horrible.
Not for the faint of heart, yet it is a powerful adaptation of a lesser play by the Bard.