Shakespeare has caught a few breaks at the movies lately. Romeo and Juliet and Richard III became vigorous films that did honor to both the Bard and the medium. Now Julie Taymor, the magician who on Broadway turned the Lion King menagerie into masked enchanters on stilts, takes Shakespeare's goriest play, Titus Andronicus, and makes it vivid, relevant and of elevating scariness.
A boy, his face hidden by a paper-bag helmet, plays an improvised war game with toy soldiers on his kitchen table. An explosion startles him, the room bursts into flames, and a giant totes him out of the present day and into 1st century Rome. Henceforward, the action will take place in both ages. Imperial warriors, caked with the dust of conquest, tramp through the Coliseum like bulky action figures. Their leader Titus (Anthony Hopkins) is a straight-spoken military man of the past; his rival, the emperor Saturninus (Alan Cumming), is pure oil of modern politician, seizing and betraying Titus' daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser). Tattoos abound, on the royal Goth captives led by Tamora (Jessica Lange) and on the Moor Aaron (Harry Lennix). A tiger stalks the forest.
Taymor keeps the eye as busy as the ear; she embellishes the story without disfiguring it. There's room in her bestiary for fine performances, a pretty collision of histrionic styles. Cumming preens, Lennix schemes, Lange smolders. Then all cede to Hopkins, who, in the suitably grisly finale, serves up Titus as Hannibal Lecter with a noble vengeance. Rare and well done!
Other movies might have bigger stars, higher budgets, deeper tans. But if you're looking for a complex weave of word and image, and an early clue to where film might go in its second century, you can begin and end with this towering Titus.