Julie Taymor is a designer/director with a primarily theatrical background in which her interests in puppetry, masks, and design have blossomed into stage experiences of visual spectacle. Her breakthrough to mainstream recognition was provided by none other than the Disney organization, which (at what was perceived to be substantial risk) backed her lavish production of The Lion King. That show earned Taymor two Tony awards and an unprecedented commercial success on Broadway.
In view of such acclaim, it seems almost ungracious to observe that while The Lion King is an unquestionable success as theatrical spectacle, thinking theatergoers, more often than not, find it to be a glass only half full, thrilling in its stunning visual design, but lacking a core of any great depth or substance.
Taymor is now, as they say, "bankable" and surely will have little trouble getting the financial backing she needs for other projects. And, indeed, she was able to get financing for a lavish film production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. One might question both the wisdom of and the motivation for choosing this overlong, overwrought study of vengeance, amongst all the possibilities before her for her first major outing on the silver screen. Taymor says the play speaks directly to our times – "a time whose audience feeds daily on tabloid sex scandals, teenage gang rape, high school gun sprees, and the private details of a celebrity murder trial." The question becomes whether she brings art to this audience or whether she is pandering to its media-debased tastes. The results are pronouncedly mixed.
Taymor’s artistic decision to make the production a somewhat surrealistic blending of time periods (ancient Rome, fascist Rome) and of both highly stylized and naturalistic imagery was a brave and creative choice, which, in the broad sweep of this two and three-quarter hour film provides an effective visual context for the play. Motorcycles mix with chariots, fedoras mix with classic armor; all these juxtapositions play off of one another and juggle the mind’s eye with historical allusion and emotional association. It is the kind of creativity which Taymor delivers superbly.
At the core of this crowd of crazed vengeance-seekers, it is Anthony Hopkins as Titus who creates a genuinely rounded and sympathetic character, the victor whose unforgiving adherence to barbarous tradition leads him to slaughter the first borne prince of his defeated enemy and set in motion an ever darker, ever more grotesque roundelay of retaliation and revenge. Hopkins may chew up the scenery, as it were, but he never loses the poetry of the text; without him, one might never have guessed this to be Shakespeare. Jessica Lange as Tamora, his chief antagonist, chews up the scenery with nearly equal energy if with far less force. Lange seems to have little feel for the poetic rhythm of the text, partly, no doubt, due to the fact that it is far from top-drawer Shakespeare. Her character remains a caricature, the living spirit of vengeance, reaching for ever darker evils to perpetrate. It is, in effect, a cartoon performance which would have fit equally as well as, say, the Catwoman in Batman Returns.
There are effective, even moving scenes within the film. The main title sequence of the victorious, if solemn, soldiers marching into Rome is choreographed effectively, lending a sense of majesty to the opening events. The Crossroads scene is potent and moving; Hopkins dominates and the drama is intense. When Titus’ brother, Marcus, well played by Colm Feore, comes upon the ravaged and mutilated Lavinia, Taymor lets the camera linger on his face as it registers the overpowering sadness he feels for this innocent, victimized by the blackest of evil. There is more feeling generated by observing Marcus’s emotional response than from seeing the physical consequences directly, though Taymor is not about to spare us that.
But too many indulgent decisions were made in this production and it ends up running out of steam long before the grand finale banquet, a moment of Grand Guignol played for farce. Taymor frames the film with a contemporary boy, the designated observer on behalf of the audience. The device adds nothing but a distraction in an already overburdened script, not to speak of its weary triteness. An orgy scene some two hours into the movie does little to restore the badly flagging pace and has in common with Kubrick’s orgy in Eyes Wide Shut both a lack of eroticism and a failure to generate any genuine tone of decadence. And Taymor offers filler montages (swirling angels playing horns around a sacrificial lamb, for example) that add nothing but further indulgence for what appears to be an overactive and underedited imagination.
A major problem lies with Elliot Goldenthal’s score. It isn’t the mixture of styles that fails; that runs in parallel to the mixture of visual styles on the screen. But the score is a collection of movie music cliches which Taymor uses more than once with the intention of bolstering dramatic passages. It is as if she had no faith in the ability of Shakespeare’s words and the actors’ skills to generate the drama, so the words are drowned out under great orchestral washes of mediocrity. And, as if she hadn’t kept the audience sitting far too long already, Taymor closes the film with another hackneyed conceit: the boy (with the surviving infant of Tamara and Aaron in his arms) walking off into the sunrise. Of course, this finale is accompanied by a crescendo of still more musical Pablum. It is the most excruciatingly banal film moment in memory.
There is probably a pretty good film in this source material, but by sacrificing text to effect and drama to spectacle, by underrating her audience’s imagination and sharing too much of her own, Taymor has succeeded only in creating a great – and interminable – filmic mess .