WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: Penniless artist Jack Dawson wins a lucky ticket back to America aboard the Titanic; and his luck improves further when he begins an affair with Rose, the desperately lonely fiancée of cold-hearted cad Cal. But just when Jack and Rose pledge their futures to each other, history – in the shape of a massive iceberg – interferes with their plans.
The name Titanic, to most, means an historic tragedy; but to salvager Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) the wreck means little more than a potential goldmine, as he hunts for a precious and highly valuable piece of jewellery called the Heart of the Ocean. He’s thwarted when he finds only a saucy sketch of a young woman wearing the necklace, and his mood isn’t lightened when he gets a phone call from someone claiming to be that woman, eighty-five years on. However, when Rose (Gloria Stuart) arrives she tells a compelling and convincing tale of romance, of being a seemingly privileged, art-loving girl (Kate Winslet) accompanied by a haughty mother (Frances Fisher) and even haughtier fiancé called Cal (Billy Zane), who reveals a nasty jealous streak when Rose’s life is saved by third class passenger Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the two begin to associate.
As Rose starts enjoying herself, living up to Jack’s exhortation to ‘make it count’, the pair begin a tryst under the nose of Cal’s personal assistant Lovejoy (David Warner). However, the reckless demands of White Star’s Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) to get to New York at top speed, much to the dismay of noble ship designer Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber) and confuddled captain Smith (Bernard Hill), mean that April 15th, 1912 is a day that will live long in the memories of those lucky enough to survive, like the legendary ‘Unsinkable’ Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) and one – but not both – of our star-crossed couple.
Back in the mists of time when I first saw Titanic at the pictures, I was sympathetic to Cameron’s approach, as writer and director, to the story. Just like Life is Beautiful, the tragedy of the event was too much if you tried to tell everyone’s tales, so it made sense to encapsulate it in a single – if fictional – relationship. Cameron evidently designed Titanic to be as accessible as possible: the framing device, exploring the ship from a modern perspective and explaining why it sank before it happens (so to speak); the love story, rooting the tale in something fundamentally interesting and turning the imminent disaster into an action-packed race against time; the leads, attractive without being ridiculously glamorous (Winslet – and this is a good thing – is what you’d call a ‘healthy girl’). For all the brief titillation offered by Winslet’s nudity, Titanic is a movie for impressionable (don’t make me say ‘tweenage’) girls, sent all a-quiver by Leo’s bright blue eyes and non-threatening charm, and made jealous by Kate’s nice hair and fabulous dresses.
The downside of this simplistic approach is that Cameron can be accused of treating the tragic deaths of 1,500 real-life people as mere extras in a glorified pantomime (you could even argue that Titanic specifically riffs on Aladdin). And the story is flimsy – good-looking bloke catches the eye of someone else’s listless trophy fiancée; they act irresponsibly, have sex, then disaster strikes – just in time, really, because neither has enough about them to sustain the interest of the more demanding viewer. Winslet’s poor little rich girl (her words, not mine) has conflicts, no doubt, but they are brushed aside by the action-based events that follow.
Meanwhile, Jack’s carpe diem approach and rough talents are scant grounds for a love that lasts a lifetime – you’d imagine Rose would have quickly tired of his happy-go-lucky ways when they landed in New York and reality struck, had the iceberg not struck first. The film’s class politics are truly ridiculous, pitting the stuffy, unhappy rich against the vibrant, drinking poor, complete with patronising Oirish idioms: ‘Jaysus, Mary and Joseph!’ exclaims a flame-haired woman, marvelling at Rose’s ballet tricks, in one of many choice pieces of naff dialogue. Others include Brock’s challenge to Rose, during the mostly unlovely modern-day bits: ‘Are you ready to go back to Titanic?’; Jack, of one of his models: ‘A one-legged prostitute – good sense of humour though’; or the inappropriately excitable comments as the ship is about to go down (Rose: ‘Jack! This is where we first met!’; a little later still, Jack helpfully points out ‘This is it!’).
Equally pantomimic is Cal’s relentless pursuit of Rose and/or the Heart of the Ocean, with the rabid assistance of his henchman Lovejoy (Warner seems to enjoy the part). Cowardly bully Cal and his vicious attack dog are thoroughly hissable panto villains, but they take centre stage for too long. Once the iceberg hits and it becomes clear that every passenger will be affected, the film surely has bigger fish to fry; and while the increasingly waterborne stunts have their drama – plus the welcome humour of Winslet’s wild axe-swinging – the action eventually exists for its own sake, needlessly prolonging the movie’s thrills-and-spills bent when a sombre, elegiac register would seem to be the order of the day. Luckily, Cameron does briefly relent, allowing Gloria Stuart to revel in her emotions as she reaches back in time*; and in the story proper when everyone stops talking and the band, brought on deck to calm fraying nerves, plays their final piece, their plaintive melody juxtaposed with passengers accepting their fate and tenderly preparing for the worst.
However, the key to the movie’s extraordinary success lies not with the small moments, but with how brilliantly the big, pantomimic emotions play out on the big screen, where the majesty of the thundering engine room, the unnatural sounds of the ship breaking up and the enormous scale of the incredible stuntwork are experienced in full. And it’s not fair to criticise the film for what it became, a regrettable demonstration of the scalability of the film industry; or for the fact that, thanks to Celine Dion, James Horner’s pipe-laden melodies became hackneyed in our ears; or for the fact that the special effects now have a distinctly digital and occasionally unconvincing sheen.
No, to put it simply, Titanic works as an event, experienced communally in a cinema. James Cameron may not be able to tell a nuanced or complicated story, but, as he would prove again with the hugely successful Avatar, he understands mainstream movie-making like no-one else. Unlike Avatar, and despite its primary-colour, simplistic brushstrokes, Titanic’s big emotions feel genuine on the big screen; which is why, even with massive reservations, I’d gladly watch it repeatedly in all its overblown, overlong glory.
NOTES: On the other hand, I only recently realised that Rose dies at the end, which casts a different light on the technically proficient reanimation of the ship’s hulk to its former glory – all the other dead people have been hanging around just waiting for her to snuff it, so they can applaud her and Jack’s snogging? Give me a break.