Star Rating: 4/5
A century has passed since the White Star Line’s ‘unsinkable’ Titanic sank on her maiden voyage, taking down 1,503 souls with her to the watery abyss. It was a tragedy, but one that still fascinates people for so many reasons. The absorbing 1997 film, re-released in 3D for the centenary of the disaster, embodies why this is the case.
Titanic centres round two central characters who board the ship as it takes off from Southampton for New York in April 1912. Rose (when old, played by Gloria Stuart; when young, played by Kate Winslet – Revolutionary Road, Contagion, Red Band) is the daughter of a bankrupt aristocrat and is travelling in the luxuries of first-class. Against Rose’s will, her mother, Ruth (Frances Fisher – The Roommate, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Silent Thief), has set her up to marry Caledon ‘Cal’ Hockley (Billy Zane – Back to the Future I-II, The Roommate, The Employer), a wealthy businessman, to relieve the family of their crippling debts.
Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio – Revolutionary Road, Inception, The Great Gatsby), on the other hand, is a dirt-poor artist journeying in third-class. After spending time in a variety of European cities, he is returning to America for a better life.
Whilst on the decks, Jack spots Rose on the higher levels and is instantly taken by her beauty. Yet, it is not until Rose is on the verge of jumping off the vessel’s stern that they meet. Jack urges her not to plunge to her death in the freezing waters and she follows his advice.
Subsequently, much to the envy of Cal, love blossoms between Jack and Rose… Until a cold, cloudless night when Titanic, running at full steam, strikes an iceberg.
For a film that is predominantly about a love story, Titanic is surprisingly gripping and abetted by a powerful music score, written by James Horner. Astonishingly, the film does not feel like it’s three hours and fifteen minutes long, since director/producer James Cameron (Alien, Avatar I-II, Sanctum) uses the time cleverly.
For the two hours or so before Titanic suffers its fatal wound, Cameron ensures viewers believe the false sense of security that passengers undoubtedly felt aboard the ‘unsinkable’ ship (even though audiences know the ship’s doomed fate), and gives the characters a (clichéd) 1912-societal role, depth and humour to maintain one’s interest.
Moreover, Cameron makes the vessel hit the iceberg with (approximately) an hour and a half to go. With Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber – Legally Blonde, Milk, Argo) stating that Titanic has less than two hours afloat, it feels like one watches the ship keel in real time, instead of in a quick, artificial manner. This not only means viewers can realise the anarchy that gripped the ship as she went under; it enables one to appreciate the heroics of individuals on the night, such as the officers who sent out distress signals until Titanic’s power failed, and the life-boat stewards, like William Murdoch (who has been incorrectly portrayed as a murderer by Cameron) and Harold Lowe (Ioan Gruffudd – Fantastic I-II, Sanctum, Mariah Mundi and the Midas Box), who lowered as many boats and got as many people into them as possible, amidst the chaos.
And because Cameron has so much time, he also properly shows us the cowardice of others, like Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde – The Mummy, The Tailor of Panama, Spooks), who wanted headlines so badly he imperilled the ship he named (ironically immortalising Titanic), and Edward J. Smith (Bernard Hill – The Lord of the Rings II-III, Valkyrie, Paranorm), the reckless and dithering captain, who at least had the dignity to go down with the vessel.
On the whole, the actors play their parts well, particularly Kate Winslet (even though she recently came out saying that her acting could have been better and she has a point), Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Billy Zane and Kathy Bates (Misery, Midnight In Paris, Starbright), as the ‘unsinkable’ Molly Brown.
However, the cast’s performances are often undermined by risible dialogue. The worst offender, by a distance, is Leonardo DiCaprio. (Not that Winslet does herself much credit by shrieking “Jack” frequently.) DiCaprio’s ability to spew out contrived lines in a desperate voice is almost an embarrassment to the victims of the disaster.
Dialogue may not be one of Cameron’s specialities (Avatar illustrated that), but as a director he cannot be questioned. The impeccable way Titanic has been filmed and flows are testimony to this. That the movie’s set is huge and that one hardly notices the numerous special effects give clout to this (apart from a couple of poor CGI shots of the bow’s nose).
Alas, the 3D does not effectively aid the film. It is not that effort hasn’t been put in. Rather, Titanic is not the type of film wherein the 3D can enhance scenes much, other than when people are falling from the stern as the giant propellers rise monstrously from the water.
All-in-all, Titanic is an enchanting film that gives us a window into a by-gone era. The film brilliantly details many of the complexities of early-twentieth century society, with moving music and special effects that are as magnificent as the ship that left Southampton. But the movie also does the tragedy justice, pointing out the valour of some and the pusillanimity of others. This is why the fate of the ‘unsinkable’ ship will forever have the power to captivate.