August Strindberg condensed Miss Julie's sex-and-class contest to the "spectacle of life...so brutal, so cynical, so heartless." Now another Miss Julie?Taymor, celebrated for Broadway's The Lion King?has directed Titus as a similarly modern interpretation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. Mike Figgis' new film version of Miss Julie is a disaster, while in Titus Taymor has rediscovered the excitement in old drama.
There's moral intelligence in Taymor's adaptation. Titus transforms the thrill of calamity and violence into a personal, political meditation. The film begins as an androgynous child plays at toy-soldier violence, but, like David O. Russell's Three Kings, the notion isn't Tarantino hip; it stings. Taymor uses Shakespeare's almost disreputable orgy of killing and deviance with genuine seriousness, but also panache. It's almost like watching the entertaining 1973 Vincent Price movie Theater of Blood. In that film Price played an aging thespian who wreaks vengeance on pedantic theater critics by casting them in cutthroat stagings of Shakespeare's nastiest homicides (most from Titus Andronicus, of course). Although occasionally campy, there's nothing silly in Titus. Taymor wrings instructive value from the many cruelties and grotesques.
Using postmodern anachronisms, a deliberate mix of design motifs and multicultural casting, Titus is a kind of Apocalypse Now. Extending the dystopic culture popularized in Blade Runner to the presentation of a classical literary drama, Taymor comments on modern anarchy. Though set in the past, after the Roman defeat of the Goths, the film takes place in a fevered, emotional present. It's a dream of people going mad, the world turned purgatorial. Taymor takes one of Shakespeare's lines ("The goddess of justice has left the earth") as key.
Titus himself (Anthony Hopkins) is a figure of public hypocrisy, a warrior and political hero whose personal interests?even his isolation and apathy?take precedence over politics and the public good. As you watch, subconsciously expecting Titus to display something of Lear's gradual moral wisdom, it takes a while to realize none of it is coming, and that the contentious world surrounding Titus can never achieve balance. Today, this seems less a sign of the young Shakespeare's inexperience, or his jejune imitation of Christopher Marlowe's bloody theatrics; it feels convincing. In recent flawed, experimental Shakespeares (like Oliver Parker's trenchantly performed Othello and Richard Loncraine's vibrant if shrill Richard III), the sense of the story was secondary to achieving a grand performance. Titus amazes mostly by getting the paranoia and shock consistently, temperamentally right. It's the difference between Bard adaptations that are modern and one that is fresh. Where Loncraine used 30s black-shirt regalia to suggest a fascist uprising, Taymor's content with using a choir on the soundtrack singing "Vivere" to hint at Italian fascism; it's one of many clues to historical upheaval and social disasters. Besides, Shakespeare's own are explicit enough.
Probably no 1999 movie image?not even the facile, apocalyptic plane crash in Fight Club?is as devastating as the desecration of Titus' daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser). It's an infamous literary outrage; Taymor has been true to its conventional staging and yet makes it newly horrifying. Seizing big-screen advantage, she gives the scene an environmental expanse?a desolate field with what looks like burnt tree limbs crawling out of sandy earth and in the distance a parched horizon line suggesting no escape. Taymor has the dramatic knack to build catastrophe even after that establishing shot. Her images are worthy of Shakespeare's imagery?as potent, as rude, as poetic. Lavinia's rape tableau seems to express the sorrow of all devastation. When she opens her mouth in a blood-drenched cry, raising her butchered arms now hideously stuffed with tree branches, Taymor's visual precision justifies her audacity. It puts to shame those putty-and-plastic wounds Edward Norton brandished in Fight Club.
Shakespeare buttresses Taymor with a credible sense of emotional ruin?of youthful vanity trumped, of cosmic unfairness?that Lavinia's assault (resulting from several characters' selfish actions) only confirms. Titus substantiates a moral view that Fight Club confuses with simplistic nihilism; it's not that culture extracts one's humanity (or in the fashionable phrase, "manhood") but that ambition and hostility can derange simple human impulses. Taymor sees this aspect of Titus Andronicus as more than a tale of war; she understands what great dramatists like Shakespeare and Strindberg taught about deranged human nature.
Hopkins plays Titus well, if abstractly; he's the humane Roman warrior so crazed with power and ego that he slaughters a vanquished queen's son before her eyes, and then his own as political protocol. It's not necessary to think of Hannibal Lecter; in this film (a world so mad, a concept so great) anything goes. Its contemporary cues include Hopkins wearing a chef's cap during the play's climactic cannibal banquet to convey ancient Titus' insanity in modern terms. But Taymor's ingenuity shows best in the unexpected casting of Jessica Lange as Tamora, queen of the defeated Goths, who goes from mourning to vengeance?the same route as Titus but in triple-time corruption. Lange has the sensual presence to take the play's male-oriented character crises into deeper dimensions. She innately sexualizes it (more than Alan Cumming's overly queenly Saturninus) but she also has a contemporary temperament?as Janet Suzman brought to Antony and Cleopatra, as Glenda Jackson brought to everything despite herself. Tamora displays her tattooed flesh, sometimes in gold Amazonian breastplate, to both seduce and appall. Lange reads the lines with her usual neurotic fervor, but her lewd saunter and lust-maddened eyes make the words pierce. Taymor recognizes Tamora's feminine power (look at their names) but she isn't a feminist propagandist like Jane Campion out to justify any female pique, as in Holy Smoke. Lange is excitingly daring as Tamora self-destructively tangles with her slave Aaron (Harry J. Lennix), eventually getting a vengeful rise out of him?almost a raw sketch for Lady Macbeth.
If movie culture is not lost altogether, Lennix's performance will be analyzed for years to come. Taymor has done an extraordinary thing in risking this potentially scandalous characterization. Harry J. Lennix plays the devious black political strategist who pits all sides against each other and becomes the movie's phoenix-out-of-ashes astonishment. It may be the darkest role any actor has had all year, yet while Lennix unquestionably plays the modern racial aspect of it?a rebuke of European culture's inherent racism (and originally in Shakespeare's text)?he stays connected to the emotional core. Lennix's readings seem more fervent than rhythmic since the text itself has little poetry; so it's the right rhythm, giving Aaron's menace a classic nobility. As written ("Aaron will have his soul black like his face"), Aaron is pure villain and pure black man.
A smaller intelligence (say, Barry Levinson's) would leave him at that, but Taymor goes Shakespeare's limit. Taymor lets Shakespeare's characters account for themselves and thereby validates the principle of nontraditional casting. When the actor's right?like Lennix or Lange?the role gains specificity even as its universality becomes transcendent. Aaron's scream for his progeny and his reaction to the perfidy of the state, competing with its venality and treachery, reveal rich, humanizing levels. Though bad music drowns out the "I am the Sea" speech, his earlier "vengeance in my heart, death in my hands" becomes a threatening, palpable vow. Lennix, spectacularly handsome with intriguing scars decorating his cheeks, makes Aaron a remarkable figure. If you recall Lennix from The Five Heartbeats, this proves that good actors, tragically wasted in typical Hollywood junk, can be redeemed.
With its multiculti circus of decadence from despotic upstarts to sybaritic followers, Titus at first looks as conventionally gaudy as any post-Fellini spectacle, particularly Baz Luhrmann's atrocious Romeo + Juliet. The big orgy scene repeats some of that hodgepodge extravagance. But the cumulative gallimaufry is more imaginative?the gigantic indoor burial stones, the arena-like political quad. These more or less realistic settings have an evocative effect; no place seems new or permanent. It's the Decline in time-shifting perpetuity. Taymor may not be a cinematic visionary on the level of Boorman or Griffith or Bertolucci; she doesn't yet have their facility with cinematic tropes. She seems to be borrowing effects as she learns them?sometimes from tv commercials, music videos, older movies or even older, once-avant-garde theater schematics. But most importantly, she chooses effects for their meaning. Not just as ways of opening up and updating Shakespeare but with an eye toward mythological animal totems, psychological Rorschach doublings. Above all, as a director she's not afraid of any space and almost never frames a shot in a stagelike manner. This is a far more respectable and filmic debut than Sam Mendes made with American Beauty (which was basically mise-en-scene by Conrad Hall) and even?despite the ostentation?a more coherent visual conception than Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry.
I'm hinting that Taymor directs unexpectedly well?not like a pampered feminist or a male theater brat. But like the legendary Max Reinhardt's 1935 film of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a respect for pageantry defines her esthetic. Sometimes Taymor chooses infelicitous toys. Treating the climactic moment with the 360-degree freeze-frame is unfortunately distracting; barely a year old, it became a cliche before Titus ever opened (filmmaker David Leitner has said "it's become the zoom effect of the 90s"). And some of the fast cuts interfere with an actor's depiction of madness. Still, Titus combines words and images that maintain the heart of theater, the essence of dramatic storytelling that is always adrenaline at the movies.
Miss Julie Directed by Mike Figgis
Blame movie critics' indulgence that we still have to contend with Mike Figgis. He has just adapted Miss Julie, and its base in great dramatic literature (Strindberg's 1888 play) is all that separates it from Figgis' other lewd works. Back in the days of Stormy Monday and Internal Affairs, it looked like Figgis had, like Strindberg, a new insight about psychology?primarily a gift for sensuality. He turned performers like Sean Bean, Melanie Griffith, Richard Gere and Andy Garcia into exceptionally erotic creatures. But since then he's jumped off the Lawrencian track and gone to Zalman King hell. Glamorizing alcoholism and prostitution in Leaving Las Vegas (New York Film Critics Circle Best Picture award); telling an interracial dirty joke in One Night Stand; then concocting a masturbatory autobiography in The Loss of Sexual Innocence (lavishly praised by The New York Times), Figgis proved to have no artistry; he was merely a softcore charlatan. He pornographizes everything he touches, newly translating Strindberg with four-letter words, simulated copulation and his usual Eurotrash casting.
The class battle between upper-class Miss Julie (Saffron Burrows) and manservant Jean (Peter Mullan) ought to be about more than sexual tension. Here, it's just a test of how far actors are willing to exploit their tumescence. Mullan shows the same skill and bantam ferocity that distinguished My Name Is Joe, and Burrows, like Milla Jovovich as Joan of Arc, is just a model doing her best. Her high-cheekboned snootiness is embarrassingly in-sync with Figgis' wannabe Helmut Newton porno chic. Figgis' instincts are so decayed he doesn't realize that he might have made this movie work in modern dress; instead his impulse to tarnish seriousness (with Harmony Korine-type videography and flat-out bad compositions) is only exposed by the pretense toward period fidelity. Maddeningly unserious, this Miss Julie exemplifies the decadence Titus explains.