When on a cruise, Judge Gordon Sullivan always checks lifeboats.
Our reviews of Titanic (1997) (published March 1st, 2000), Titanic (1997) Collector's Edition (published October 31st, 2005), and Titanic (1997) 3D (Blu-ray) Limited Edition (published September 10th, 2012) are also available.
The original four-part miniseries written by Julian Fellowes marking the Titanic's 100th Anniversary.
I have nothing (okay, very little) against James Cameron's Titanic. It's a melodramatic potboiler of a film that shoehorns a love story into a tragic moment in history, but for all that it's well-made and came at an important time in film history and Cameron's career. No, I don't begrudge the sappy story of Kate and Leo, nor the underdeveloped aristocratic characters and ethnic stereotypes, and not even the almost fetishistic "recreation" of the ship turns me off all that much. No, the saddest part of Titanic is that its sheer size and box-office power seemed to rewrite the history books. Suddenly, after 1997, James Cameron's vision became the default telling of the Titanic tale, at least in cinema. This throws over interesting films like Roy Ward Baker's A Night to Remember and a 1943 German propaganda version of the events designed to make the British look bad. Luckily, it's been over a decade since Cameron's Titanic sunk, and with the 100th anniversary of the disaster in our rearview there's an opportunity for others to tackle the Titanic myth. One of those characters is Julian Fellowes, a much-feted British actor/writer/director, and his contribution to Titanic popular culture is a four-part miniseries that corrects some of Cameron's deficiencies, but is still not quite a perfect telling of the tale.
Facts of the Case
I hope by now we all know the story of the Titanic, even if it's only from watching Cameron's film. Big ship, bigger iceberg, lots of people drowning. Yes. It's not surprising that the writer/creator of Downton Abbey turns this tale of nautical tragedy into an upstairs/downstairs melodrama, where three of the show's four episodes tackle a fictional individual's story onboard the Titanic (naturally running the social spectrum from aristocracy to the bottom of steerage). They all come together for the final episode as we see their fates against the backdrop of the sinking ship.
Julian Fellowes won many hearts and minds with Downton Abbey, and a lot of the reasons for its success have been translated to Titanic:
• The historical setting. I won't pretend to claim that Fellowes captures something authentic about the nineteen-teens, but I know that in both Downton Abbey and Titanic the historical setting appears well-managed and appealing. Fellowes isn't afraid to pretend we know all the details of how society worked at the time, offering us a kind of window into the past that doesn't treat the audience like children. Of course, that means that (at least at first) we might have to struggle a bit to keep up, but Fellowes pays it off with interesting characters and lots of historical detail.
• Excellent acting. There's no one here who can claim Maggie Smith's stature, but viewers will see Geraldine Somerville (of Harry Potter fame), Toby Jones, and even Maria Doyle Kennedy (who eagle-eyed fans will recognize her from Downton Abbey). Well-known names or not, the cast here does a fine job with the material.
• The costume and sets. Though not as sumptuous as Cameron's Titanic, nor even as well done as the longer-running Downton Abbey, this Titanic boasts some well-done costumes and an interestingly low-budget take on the Titanic and its environs: for instance there's no money shot of the grand staircase as in Titanic.
• This Blu-ray. One of the most encouraging parts of Downton Abbey was the care lavished on the Blu-ray releases, and Titanic is up to scratch there as well. The 1.78:1 AVC-encoded transfer is strong on detail and black levels even if it is only 1080i. My only complaint is that it looks perhaps a bit too digital, but since it was shot on digital that's not a huge surprise. Though it's not the fault of this Blu-ray, the show has a desaturated, overly blue look to it that fans of the more sumptuously colorful Downton Abbey might not appreciate. The DTS-HD audio is similarly impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear in the center channel, though, of course, the surrounds don't really kick in until the ship is going down.
• Extras start with a commentary on the first episode by Fellowes, director Jon Jones, and producer Nigel Stafford-Clark. The trio discuss the genesis of the project, the structure of the episodes, and their inspiration for the show. Though they cover a lot here, one can't help but wish they'd continued for all four episodes. Then, there are six making-of featurettes totaling around 37 minutes that cover everything from the script to the show's use of CGI. There's another half-hour featurette that is more personal, as the cast and crew talk about the real disaster and how it relates to their work. History buffs will enjoy the documentary, "The Curse of the Titanic Sisters," about the other two White Star line ships that met bad fates included here. The set rounds out with a trailer, a photo gallery, some character bios, and a time-lapse set build. A separate DVD contains all the episodes in standard-def.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not all is well with Titanic, however, and it's far from the knockout that is Downton Abbey. The first major problem is that like the vast majority of Titanic stories, this one has to rely on stereotypes to tell the tale of the Titanic. The sinking of the ship literally and figuratively dwarfs everything else in the picture. That leads to corner cutting in the characterization department. It does not lead, however, to cutting in the character department. This show still has seventy or eighty different characters to keep track of, and there's no way that we get to see the fate of all of them. Though I applaud the idea of making each of the four episodes a kind of self-contained story, for the shortness of the running time (actually shorter than Cameron's film) and the vastness of the cast it just doesn't work. If this had been a twelve-hour miniseries, I think there would have been room for the characters to breathe and the non-chronological story would have made sense. As it is, many viewers are going to find little reason to watch after the first episode.
Titanic is a strangely mixed bag. It's written by a master of the form with a cast comprised of excellent actors telling a tale that lots of people want to see. However, the film never quite clicks. I'm not sure if it's the huge cast, the non-chronological story, or the lack of running time that ultimately can't keep Titanic afloat. It's not a bad miniseries, though. Those interested in the Titanic or any of the actors (or even Fellowes himself) could do worse than renting this set.
Though the ship might have sunk, Titanic is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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