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Julie Taymor made her name in the world of avant-garde theater, often mixing media.

After earning a MacArthur genius grant, she moved to the mainstream first with a staging of her seminal theatrical musical "Juan Darien, A Carnival Mass" in 1996. Two years later, Taymor became the first woman to earn a Tony Award as director of a musical for her work on Disney's "The Lion King."

Moving easily into filmmaking, she directed several television pieces, including "Fool's Fire" in 1992 and the opera "Oedipus Rex" in 1993, both of which aired on PBS.

In was only inevitable that Taymor would make the leap to feature films. For her maiden effort, she turned to "Titus Andronicus," a Shakespeare play that she staged in 1995, and the results are worthy if uneven. There is much to admire in this version, but as a director, Taymor still has much to learn.

Translating the Bard to the screen is not an easy task, but for taking on a play that is as complicated and brutal as "Titus," Taymor deserves praise. Working with a superlative creative team that includes director of photography Luciano Tovoli, production designer Dante Ferretti, costume designer Milena Canenero and composer Elliot Goldenthal, she has created a visually stunning film.

The opening scene, however, is a bit disconcerting. A child wearing a paper bag mask is playing at a kitchen table with an assortment of toy soldiers. Suddenly, an explosion occurs and a large man comes and carries the boy off to the Roman Colosseum where Titus (Anthony Hopkins, in a bravura performance) is returning from war. This sequence, with soldiers marching in choreographed formation while chanting in Latin, sets the tone for the film that has the events unfold with the young boy as a witness (he eventually assumes the role of Titus' grandson).

In adopting this point of view, Taymor allows for the use of anachronistic touches (for example, motorcycles, automobiles, big band music, video games, etc.) but these choices do not detract from the inherent drama.

While the extravagant design sometimes threatens to detract from the performances, Taymor has shrewdly cast the film that allows the performers to shine. By now it is no secret that Hopkins was undergoing personal problems during the long and arduous shoot -- at one point, he even announced his retirement from acting -- but all the agony and discord has resulted in one of the actor's best screen performances. Only at the end, when Titus himself has seemingly gone mad, does the actor overdo it. By that he point, however, he has proven once again how potent and powerful he can be with the right material.

Jessica Lange, in her first Shakespearean role, also proves a revelation. Her Tamora, Queen of the Goths, runs the gamut from grieving mother to spiteful revenger, and Lange manages to convey the depths of cunning and sensuality in this woman. Of the large supporting cast, the standouts include Laura Fraser, a Julia Roberts look-alike, as Titus' daughter Lavinia; James Frain as her doomed lover Bassanius; Colm Feore as Titus' brother; Alan Cumming as the hedonistic emperor Saturninus; and Harry J. Lennix as Aaron, the Moor who sets several plots in motion.

Taymor tends to use the camera well, although there are several sequences that could have benefited from judicious editing. Still, it is clear that the director had a particular vision for this film, and she has mostly achieved it. One only wonders what she will do for an encore.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong violence and sexual images.


Anthony Hopkins: Titus Andronicus

Jessica Lange: Tamora, the Queen of the Goths

Jonathan Rhys Meyers: Chiron

Harry J. Lennix: Aaron Alan Cumming: Saturninus

Colm Feore: Marcus

A Fox Searchlight presentation. Director Julie Taymor. Screenplay Julie Taymor. Play William Shakespeare. Producers Conchita Airoldi, Julie Taymor and Jody Patton. Director of photography Luciano Tovoli. Editor Francoise Bonnot. Music composer Elliot Goldenthal. Production designer Dante Ferretti. Costume designer Milena Canonero. Art directors Massimo Razzi and Domenico Sica. Set decorator Carlo Gervasi.