1999 is considered one of the strongest years of cinema in living memory. There were countless articles in 2019 marking the 20th anniversaries of that year’s greatest hits and examining their impact and legacy.
But this column isn’t about those movies. This column is about the overlooked gems from 1999 — the weird, ungainly, or unjustly forgotten films that don’t usually get listed alongside the established classics, but which are just as deserving of their own retrospectives.
There’s a long list of cinematic Shakespeare adaptations that take great experimental liberties with their source material, but none are as bombastic as Julie Taymor’s maddeningly, beautifully baroque spin on Titus Andronicus — retitled, simply, Titus —from 1999.
One of Shakespeare’s lesser known—sometimes reviled—early tragedies, Titus is often compared to modern day exploitation films, in that it’s a gory, action-packed revenge thriller playing to its audience’s basest instincts. These same qualities, quite understandably, also make it a cult favorite among those of us who share a love for The Bard as well as a taste for the grindhouse.
A story of political intrigue and personal vengeance, Titus charts the violent rivalry between Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins), loyal general to the Roman army, and Tamora (Jessica Lange), queen of the Goths, who manipulates her way from post-war captivity into the seat of Roman power. Their savage war of attrition devours both of the dynasties alongside the Empire, and involves all manner of atrocity: human sacrifice, filicide, rape, mutilation, torture, and even cannibalism.
On paper, this seems on odd choice for Taymor to make her feature debut, given that she was coming off the massive success of The Lion King on Broadway. While that story is itself loosely inspired by another of Shakespeare’s revenge plays, it is notably lacking in all the grisly business that makes Titus Andronicus such a rarely staged production. But as Taymor, who previously staged the play in 1994, explained during the film’s promotional tour, “How many Hamlets do we need?” Titus makes for a thrilling production not simply because of its ridiculously heightened drama and gruesome content, but because it provides glimpses into several themes and archetypes that would later appear in several of Shakespeare’s greatest masterpieces, including Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Richard III, and Macbeth.
Turns out, Titus was also the ideal vehicle upon which Taymor could outfit seemingly every piece of costume and production design she could dream up. The end result is a grab bag of anachronistic style and detail, haplessly throwing together aesthetics of German expressionism and fascist propaganda with the grungy post-apocalyptic style of the Mad Max films and Mathew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle. The sheer gluttony on display regularly tips the film into camp, but that only adds to the overall dizzying effect.
In fact, the film is so dizzying it’s often nauseating, but then, what else would you expect from a drama in which the hero’s grand act of triumph has him feeding two sons to their mother in the form of human meat pies? (People familiar with this trope from South Park and/or Game of Thrones owe Titus a watch.)
Speaking of cannibalism, you’d think Anthony Hopkins would be reticent to star as yet another people-eater (although, to be fair, his character doesn’t actually partake of any human flesh himself, he merely cooks and serves it), but nope — he throws himself into the role with full gusto and glee. When his big climactic moment comes, he’s decked out like Chef Boyardee, toque blanche and all, and it’s hard not to imagine that he and Taymor were explicitly counting on the audience’s associations with Hannibal Lector to lend the scene an extra dose of black humor.
Alas, those audiences never showed up. Titus tanked at the box office, taking in little short of $3 million worldwide (off a budget of $25 million). It did slightly better with critics, earning mixed reviews that, on the whole, leaned positive (it currently sits at 68% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes).
In hindsight, it beggars belief that any studio could have expected a film as aggressively surreal and grotesque as Titus to do well, but you have to remember how hot Shakespeare properties were at the time. True, Kenneth Branagh’s epic version of Hamlet similarly bricked it only three years prior, but 1996 also saw Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet take the coveted MTV set by storm. Then, in 1998, Shakespeare in Love closed out the year as the highest grossing film in England and one of the top earners in America before cleaning up at the Oscars. Still, Taymor’s film couldn’t be more different from those pieces of midbrow pop entertainment, even if it does share with Romeo + Juliet a grandiose edginess, albeit one lacking in teen sex appeal. Chances are the filmmakers were counting on the gravitas of the material and cast to carry more weight with respectable arthouse patrons, but it turns out that crowd doesn’t have much tolerance for elinguation.
Taymor bounced back with her next film, the prestige biopic Frida (2002), before suffering another disappointment with the 2007 Beatles musical Across the Universe. She rebounded again in 2010 with a second Shakespeare adaptation, The Tempest, which despite overwhelmingly negative reviews actually cleaned up in worldwide ticket sales. Since then she’s mainly focused on theater and opera, where she’s also hit peaks and valleys, suffering a career low point with the notorious debacle that was Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (2010). She’s set to bring her vibrant vision back to theaters soon though, with a Gloria Steinem biopic staring Julianne Moore scheduled to debut at next month’s Sundance Film Festival.
Meanwhile, her freshman feature remains a hard film to love, an ungainly mix of arthouse prestige, grindhouse grime, and camp nonsense. But it is also the type of sumptuous experience that should be pasted all over film lovers’ social media (why it hasn’t been memed to death by One Perfect Shot remains a mystery). Taymor’s Across the Universe has, of late, experienced a bit of a critical reappraisal, so it’s always possible that Titus will get one as well.
But if not, that’s fine. We often forget that Shakespeare wrote plays for the groundlings as well as the hoity-toity royals and aristocracy. Let this nasty bastard of a movie belong to us less respectable types.