Titus (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Colm Feore
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Isolated Score with Commentary, Documentary, Q&A with Julie Taymor, SFX Featurette, Costume Gallery, Articles, Trailers and TV Spot

"Titus Andronicus" was William Shakespeare’s first tragedy and is widely condemned by scholars as being his worst play. They debate among themselves whether or not it’s a parody, a thinly veiled challenge to his chief rival Christopher Marlowe, or perhaps just the product of a playwright not quite up to his game. Methinks they doth protest too much. As a very early work of the great writer, "Titus Andronicus" is an attention-grabbing epic that may not be up to par with his later masterpieces but is nevertheless a gripping story of lust, revenge, and the descent of a great man into madness. I’m sure that the Elizabethan theater goer was just as shocked by the visceral impact of "Titus Andronicus" as the modern-day viewer is by Julie Taymor’s cinematic adaptation, "Titus."

The play begins as celebrated Roman general Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) enters Rome following a costly victory over the Goths. He has returned home in order to bury 21 of his 26 sons who were killed in battle. To avenge their deaths he follows tradition and sacrifices the eldest son of his captured enemy, Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Jessica Lange), before her very eyes. Tamora exacts her revenge by seducing the impressionable new Emperor Saturninus (Alan Cumming) and turning her two surviving sons loose on an unsuspecting Rome. Aaron the Moor (Harry Lennix) is the instigator whose meddling sets off a series of events that send Titus, and Rome as a whole, into a downward spiral of revenge, madness, and despair.

"Titus" is not an easy film to watch. It is excruciatingly brutal and there is no true hero to root for as the bloodthirsty madness infects everyone. The violence is staged in a very artistic and symbolic way but that makes it no less disturbing to watch. In fact, in this day and age when so many movies feature over-the-top gore and almost cartoonish violence, encountering the harsh scenes in "Titus" is like a slap in the face. The characters here feel real pain and agony and there is no quick and painless exit for any of them. The viewer is forced to suffer through these tortures as well and, by the end of the film, will likely be exhausted and more than a little unsettled by what they have seen. This is not a condemnation of the movie by any means. In fact, I applaud the director for making the violence in "Titus" a weighty matter that isn’t easy to forget at the end of the day. It is important, however, that viewers know in advance what they’re getting into when they sit down to watch this film.

And what a film it is. As director Julie Taymor’s motion picture debut, "Titus" contains many of the elements that have made her stage shows so memorable. If you’ve been lucky enough to see her Broadway adaptation of Disney’s "The Lion King" then you know just how talented she is at taking a well-known story and transforming it into a wholly new experience — without altering the spirit of the original. "Titus" is a visual masterpiece that takes the dialogue from the Bard’s work and mixes in a healthy (or more accurately, unhealthy) dose of Fascist iconography and modern-day technology. In the twisted world of "Titus," archers face off against armored vehicles while evil henchmen while away their hours listening to techno music and playing pinball and shooting pool.

Many people may find this juxtaposition odd but it really lends strength to the film as a whole. In a strict interpretation of the play, it would be easy to dismiss the vile actions as being part and parcel of the decline and fall of ancient Rome. Pulling in modern day influences makes the film more contemporary and actually helps to illustrate what, at times, can be very difficult to comprehend prose.

The performances also help to broaden our view of "Titus." Anthony Hopkins is clearly reprising aspects that made his Hannibal Lecter role so memorable. As the general slips ever deeper into madness and lust for revenge we can clearly see the glint in the eye and perfectly delivered, chilling line of dialogue that is just as creepy as ever. Chapter 30, "Just Desserts," illustrates this similarity rather effectively. Jessica Lange’s Tamora turns equally brutal as she seeks to exact vengeance over her son’s death. Decked out all in gold and body painted she is at once the embodiment of lust and power. I especially enjoyed Alan Cummings’ turn as the spoiled, insecure, and ultimately unredeemable Emperor Saturninus. He may be typecast as the sniveling weasel in most of his films but it’s a role he plays to the hilt and with obvious glee. Harry Lennix as Aaron the Moor has what may be the toughest role of all, playing the classic villain who, through manipulation and deceit, is the orchestrater of this horrific orgy of terror.

"Titus" appears on DVD in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and in an almost perfect <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer. Colors are beautiful throughout and the palette used was clearly chosen for its visual impact. Black levels are also sharp, making the abundant nighttime scenes very clear and well-defined. On the downside, there are a few white specks that pop up here and there on the transfer. This probably wouldn’t even have been noticed if not for the near perfection of the overall image. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli was brought aboard just as production had started and his deft touch is evident in the look of the film. Having previously worked on Dario Argento’s "Suspiria" and "Tenebre," his talent for composing unsettling shots was used to great effect by Taymor. All in all, "Titus" is beautiful to behold on DVD.

The audio is presented in a <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 format or a separate Dolby Digital 2.0 track. The front soundstage is very solid with all three speakers being used to good effect. Surrounds are used frequently, but mostly for music and ambient effects. On only a few occasions does dialogue flow back to the rear speakers. Bass is good as well although the film isn’t an LFE powerhouse by any means. Most importantly, dialogue is always clear and understandable and noticeable restraint was used to ensure that sound effects and music not overwhelm the spoken word. This is particularly important when you’re trying to follow along with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan prose. That’s not to say that the score and effects don’t have their place as both are very active throughout the film — the sound mixers just know when to dial it down a bit for the sake of the story.

Now on to the extras — as a two-disc special edition, you can expect "Titus" to be packed with plentiful bonus features. Just as importantly, the DVD was produced by David Britten Prior whose previous work on other Fox titles such as "Ravenous" and "Fight Club" should assure you that this special edition is in capable hands. You know that you’re a DVD junkie when you start scanning discs to see who produced the extra features and often base your purchases on that factor alone. If you see the names Van Ling, Laurent Bouzereau, Sharpline Arts, or David Britten Prior on the box then you’re in for a treat.

Disc One of "Titus" features the film itself along with two <$commentary,commentary track>s and an isolated score. The first commentary is provided by Director Julie Taymor and reveals a lot about the film itself and also discusses what it was like for a first-time director to take on such a massive project. She talks almost non-stop for the entire length of the film and is a joy to listen to. The second track features Anthony Hopkins and Harry Lennix commenting on their experiences in making "Titus." Unfortunately, their comments are few and far between and some of the silent stretches are so long that you’ll be startled when they finally do start speaking as you’re wrapped up in the movie again by that point. Recognizing this problem, the DVD offers an index to the second <$commentary,commentary track> so you can jump straight to the scenes that are being discussed and skip the rest. Finally, there is an isolated score highlighting composer Elliott Goldenthal’s work. He occasionally offers comments on the music but pretty much just lets the score speak for itself.

Disc Two is where the real meat of the extra features can be found. First up is a 30 minute moderated Q&A with Julie Taymor that was filmed at Columbia University. The questions posed by the film students in attendance provide the director with the opportunity to touch on a number of issues not covered in the commentary or documentary. Next there is a 49 minute documentary, "The Making of Titus." This is not your typical puff-piece featurette. Made up almost entirely of original footage shot during production, it really dives into the behind-the-scenes making of the film and provides a wealth of interesting information. "Penny Arcade Nightmares" focuses on a few of the special effects shots — accompanied by commentary from coordinator Kyle Cooper. The "Costume Gallery" presents 26 still-frame shots of the various concept art for the lavish costumes. "American Cinematographer Articles" provides a couple of verbatim articles drawn from that magazine. The first, "Timeless Tale of Revenge", features the comments of cinematographer Luciano Tovoli and as such lends a new viewpoint on the making of the film. The second, "From Stage to Screen," is yet another interview with Julie Taymor. Finally, the film’s theatrical trailers and TV spots are included.

While the extras are not nearly as extensive as those found on some other special edition DVDs, they are well thought out and organized and really help to explain a film that can be very difficult to understand. The included booklet also sheds light on the production of the film and provides a brief synopsis of the story of "Titus."

As stated previously, "Titus" is a difficult movie to watch. In writing this review I have seen it in its entirety four times over the course of a few days. Each viewing seemed to bring out something new in the film and as such I recommend that you give it at least a second chance if you find your initial exposure a bit rough to handle. The first time through you’re too much in shock by the violence and unsettled by the odd settings to really follow along. As your first impressions wear off you then begin to see under the surface of the film and truly come to appreciate the fine acting and visual artistry. "Titus" is not brainless fun — it will require some degree of effort to appreciate it fully. In the end, however, you will come away having watched a wonderfully unique, yet faithful, adaptation of William Shakespeare’s most underappreciated and misunderstood play. Fox has really come through by offering a full-blown special edition for a movie that had only a very limited theatrical run. The passion of all involved in making the film and this DVD is evident throughout and, while the movie is certainly not for everyone, I personally give the DVD my highest recommendation.