Studio:E1 Entertainment Year: 2012 Cast: Toby Jones, Linus Roache, Geraldine Somerville, Maria Doyle Kennedy. Jenna-Louise Coleman Director: Jon Jones Release Date: April 24, 2012 Rating: Not Rated for (mild violence) Run Time: 03h:04m:00s Genre(s): miniseries, television, titanic
"It's hard to be lectured on equality by the daughter of an English Earl." - Harry Widener (Noah Reid)
Clever and ultimately entertaining, this melodrama still barely manages to do its subject justice.
Movie Grade: B-
DVD Grade: B
Another Titanic dramatization for the centennial of the sinking was probably inevitable, though it certainly was not inevitable that Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey fame should come attached. Given the popularity of the latter, Fellowes name was enough to advance my curiosity in the project, and likely that of many others. This four-part miniseries was produced as a joint UK, Canadian, Hungarian, and US production with a named cast of almost one hundred. Among the characters are the historical figures whom we’ve seen portrayed elsewhere, as well as an range of fictional characters with a variety of backgrounds, classes, and secrets.
The first episode almost lost me, with its dreadfully on-the-nose dialogue about class distinction. As critical as that is to this story and the Julian Fellowes oeuvre in general, it isn’t presented particularly elegantly here. Perhaps I’m not giving the writers enough credit, but it feels false to have the wealthy British people of the era being so constantly, vocally put out by the lower class crossing their paths. Poor people have more often wound up on metaphorical Titanics throughout history by being beneath the notice of the wealthy, or by being useful tools, than by being objects of open scorn. As shorthand, I suppose, the dialogue works, but it shouts where it should whisper. Wealthy suffragette Lady Georgiana Grex begins the series in a Southampton jail from which she is sprung by her aghast father and disdainful jailer.
“You know, I can’t help wonder why Lady Georgiana Grex is to be set free, but none of the others are.”
“It’s not your place to wonder.”
The focus of that first episode is on the Earl of Manton (Linus Roache), his wife, Louisa (Geraldine Somerville), and their run-ins with Muriel Batley, the wife of an employee of the Earl. Unfortunately, Louisa is so decisively snotty, and Luisa is so bitter and grating, that it’s not long before you want them both to go away. A viewer may be forgiven for having the shameful notion that, with such people on board, perhaps a sinking will not be so very traumatic. That’s not a good place to start. Fortunately, things pick up as we move along and other characters move to the fore. Future Doctor Who companion Jenna-Louise Coleman, in particular, as a practical and handy stewardess Annie Desmond is charming both as written and acted. In an enormous and largely talented cast, she stands out by toning things down a bit. She seems human, and avoids coming off as a class signifier. Things pick up with subsequent installments, as the format becomes clear: we’re seeing the same events, Rashomon-style, from different points of view. The ending of episode one appears to be leading us into a multiple-episode, but instead episodes two and three take us back to the beginning, passing over events from the points of view of alternate characters. Episode two, roughly and not exclusively, takes us down to second class, and the third installment does the same for third class. Each subsequent pass reveals more about the events affecting these characters, and more soap-operatic details. The heightened level of melodrama seems unnecessary given the subject matter, and works sporadically. Like any soap opera, plots that work (Annie’s romance with an Italian waiter) are dragged down by threads that don’t (second-class Muriel Batley’s desperate insecurity). In all, the series works too hard to make its points about life and class divisions in 1912, and juggles one too many plots such that it’s easy to lose track and to lose the human tragedy of the Titanic sinking.
It may all sound like a bit of a slog, but the miniseries does work out to more than the sum of its very mixed-bag of parts. The structure is clever (if convoluted), and the final episode in which all the threads come together is appropriately dramatic. The final moments also make a virtue of the limited TV budget by presenting the actual sinking from the points of view of the lifeboat passengers trapped in the cold, dark water. By the end, we’ve come to care about some of the more engaging characters, and even developed a bit of sympathy for the less-well-drawn ones.
Titanic arrives as a three-disc Blu-ray+DVD combo set, with the series in high definition on the first disc, Blu-ray bonus features on the second, and the standard-def series on the third (why anyone needs both formats is a bit beyond me, but there it is). First off, the series looks great in both versions, at least to the limits of the material. For spectacle, the series can’t match that other, more famous theatrical tale of Titanic, but there’s absolutely nothing to complain about as far as presentation in either picture quality or in the DTS surround. Again, it’s a TV presentation with those inherent limits, but looks good for it. There are a fair array of extras, as well:
First off, there’s the Trailer, along with an assortment of production photos and art in the Photo Gallery. The first disc also includes an optional Audio Commentary on episode one from the principals behind the production: writer Julian Fellowes, producer Nigel Stafford-Clark, and director Jon Jones. It’s a pleasant chat, but rather dry, and provides little insight that can’t be had by watching the video making of material. Titanic: Behind the Production is a fairly standard, talking head-based “making-of” at 30 minutes. Perfectly enjoyable for fans of the series. Similarly, about a half-hour’s worth of Production Featurettes (six in all) focus in on the production team, script, filming in Budapest, the set, costumes, and the cast.
The Curse of the Titanic Sisters is a documentary about the Britannic and Olympic, the two sibling ships of Titanic. Their careers were interesting, even if they’re usually overshadowed by the more dramatic fate of Titanic. The tone is slightly hyperbolic (I’m not sure that “curse” really applies, especially given that one of the two ships had a long and distinguished career), but provides a bit of a fresh perspective.
Finally, there are a series of Character Profiles (which may help in keeping track of the many characters) as well as a rather nifty Time-Lapse Set Build. In just under a minute, we see the entire elaborate ship set constructed in Budapest.
Ultimately, this Titanic was enjoyable, though I had to overcome my initial disappointment. Once I was able to relax and take it just a bit less seriously, I was able to enjoy the soap opera and high melodrama wrapped in its twisty, looping structure.