Blu-ray Review: Titus (1999) - Twilight Time Limited Edition

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One of the more recent films to be included in specialty label Twilight Time’s “Limited Edition Series,” writer-director Julie Taymor’s experimental Shakespeare adaptation Titus arrives on Blu-ray for the first time. Limited to 3,000 copies, this edition of the cult film is outfitted with a pair of excellent lossless audio mixes. Gory and at times borderline campy, Titus runs an overbearing 162 minutes. It was Taymor’s first film, though she was a well-established theatre director and had previously directed a stage adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Her film is visually interesting, though not very absorbing from a narrative standpoint. Anthony Hopkins seems to relish the more outré characteristics of his title role, but ultimately the entire enterprise collapses under the weight of its ambitious vision.

I’ll spare you any Shakespearean Cliff’s Notes as, quite frankly, I’m not nearly well-versed enough in Bard’s works to pontificate about Titus Andronicus’ place in his oeuvre. I understand it generally isn’t regarded as highly as his more often-produced tragedies. Taymor’s screenplay made judicious cuts to tighten the original play, while appropriately emphasizing its seedy, sometimes stomach-churning excesses. She also made the interesting decision to mash up time periods to a degree, including some costumes and props (including motor vehicles) that are out of step with the Roman Empire. There’s also a new framing device, with Titus’ grandson Young Lucius (Osheen Jones) opening the film in a relatively contemporary Western, suburban setting. He’s sitting at a kitchen table, violently hurling his toy action figures around, spraying them with ketchup (mock blood) before he’s whisked back in time to witness Titus’ victorious return from war. The boy continues to observe throughout.

Titus cover TMR.jpgTitus refuses to rule when nominated as Emperor of Rome. Of the deceased Caesar’s two sons, both vying for the title their father held, Titus bestows the offer upon Saturninus (Alan Cumming). Initially Saturninus chooses Titus’ daughter Lavinia as his bride, but she’s promised to Caesar’s other son, Bassianus (James Frain). Saturninus instead chooses Tamora (Jessica Lange), Queen of the Goths. But Tamora is grieving and enraged after witnessing the sacrifice of her son at Titus’ hands. Titus soon finds that his daughter has become the target of a revenge plan hatched by the queen’s other sons, Chiron (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys). Once Lavinia (Laura Fraser) is victimized in a gruesomely heinous, disfiguring, dehumanizing attack, Titus is out for revenge of his own.

So Titus is fundamentally a revenge story, one that finds various characters out to make the other’s life a living hell. It’s also an exercise in lavishly-staged tedium. There’s plenty of decadence and scenery-chewing on display, with everything writ as large and bold as possible. It’s not so much the presence of murder, rape, orgiastic sex, and even cannibalism that is a turn off—it’s the dispassionate way they’re depicted that turns Titus into such a gaudy, tasteless, and emotionally unconvincing spectacle. With no one to root for, relate to, or empathize with, the film ends up begging the question, “So what?”

Titus is, to be frank, not one of the better Blu-ray presentations issued by Twilight Time. Fox’s transfer was apparently sourced from a dated master, the only one available. It’s not unwatchable, just not as clean as sharp as would be expected from a relatively recent film. The big issue is distracting print flaws; white and black flecks that pop up quite consistently. Close-ups and most medium shots are reasonably crisp, but overall we’re not getting the level of detail that such an elaborate production deserves.

The lossless audio, available in both DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0, needs no defense. It sounds expansive and extremely well-defined, particularly in 5.1 surround. Elliot Goldenthal’s idiosyncratic score benefits greatly here, sounding terrific in both formats. The 5.1 mix is every bit as enveloping as it should be, particularly during the more far out, surreal sequences. Fans of Goldenthal’s music will appreciate the DTS-HD MA 2.0 isolated score track.

A slew of special features are included, all ported over from a previous DVD edition. Three commentary tracks offer three perspectives on the film. Having sampled each, director Taymor’s track seems to be the most compelling and insightful. Whatever I might personally think of the film, it’s abundantly clear that she invested a great deal of thought into every aspect of Titus. The second track features actors Anthony Hopkins and Harry Lennix, while the third (and most silent-gap heavy) is with composer Goldenthal.

Titus Anthony Hopkins TMR.jpgFar from the usual EPK fluff, “The Making of Titus” is an in-depth, 50-minute look behind the scenes. Read-through and rehearsal footage highlight this interest piece. More insights from Taymor can be found in the half-hour Q&A recorded at Columbia University following a screening of the film. “Penny Arcade Nightmares” is a short analysis of the special effects-based sequences. Lastly, there are also some trailers and TV spots.

Titus was an unqualified box office bomb that could’ve easily been overlooked by Fox and never released on Blu-ray. Shakespeare buffs and fans of Anthony Hopkins and/or Julie Taymor now have Twilight Time’s limited edition, augmented by a booklet of liner notes by Julie Kirgo. Visit Screen Archives for ordering information.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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