Titanic (1997)

reviewed by
Rory Mackay

Reviewed by Rory B Mackay
(1997) USA
Director: James Cameron, Starring: Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gloria
Star Rating (out of 5): ****

_In Brief:_ This film needs no introduction. If you haven't heard of it, then you must have been up in space on a sabbatical, and if you haven't seen it -- well, I suspect you're in a small minority! First thing's first…is it all it's hyped up to be? Well, yes…and no. It's a good film, and there's a lot to like about it, but it's not without its problems.

When I saw the first trailer for "Titanic", it was when I went to see "Bean" last Summer, I think, my intial reaction was -- ain't that downright sick to make a disaster movie out of such a dreadful, real-life tragedy?! I mean, what's happened to Hollywood's script-writers, have they run entirely out of new ideas? Gads, whatever next, I asked myself, how about an action film based on Hiroshima starring Jean Claude Van Damme? I was not entirely filled with anticipation, but then I wasn't alone in that respect.

It's when it came out in the cinema, to rave reviews (well, mostly) and anyone who'd been to see it seemed disturbingly obsessed by it that I started to take notice! I didn't see the film until several months after its release (by which time my sister had seen it about four times!), so I went with a slightly more open mind, but I still didn't think I'd enjoy it much. Did I? Yes and no. Mainly yes, I'm happy to say. The first hour or so was beautifully done, not so much because of the scripting (I'll talk about that later…) but because the re-created ship and sets were stunning to look at, as was Cameron's directing, and the performances of the principal cast were so strong that the "human" aspect of the story, the romance between Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), was enchanting.

The film is told via flashback, with Gloria Stuart playing the elderly Rose in the modern day (you knew that, a' course! :-) ). Well, it's an often effective device to use in storytelling -- though sometimes it can fall flat. Does it work here? In script form it doesn't add all that much to the story. What does add a lot to the story is Gloria Stuart, whose stunning performance is the strongest, most moving of the film. Her presence brings a much deeper level of passion, and depth to the story, and though her appearances are relatively brief, the film would have suffered without her.

Also impressive are DiCaprio and Winslet, who wholly succeed in rising above the often poor dialogue, and the bond they form is both heartfelt and moving. It's an old story, you know -- forbidden love ala Romeo and Juliet -- but it works, and Jack's "rescuing" Rose (in both literal and figurative senses) and teaching her to live life for what counts was pointed and touching. In fact, I enjoyed the first half of the film a lot, largely because Winslet and DiCaprio bring such and charm, energy to the romance. It's engaging, touching and very enjoyable. There's more than a tinge of poignancy to it as well, simply because you know it's not going to be a happy ending.

Which leads us to the second half of the film. We all knew it was coming. I'm sure director Cameron was looking forward with eager anticipation to it, because as he's stated in interviews, the real thrust of the story (for him) was the sinking, and the Jack/Rose romance was a merely a manipulative plot device to get you emotionally into the film. I think that understates the importance of the romance, as I found it far more enjoyable than an hour of watching people die. The iceberg arrives, and the Captain announces that Titanic will have sunk in about an hour. And it is an hour. My goodness, we don't miss a second of that hour…

Gratuitous? Well, perhaps not by today's standards, I'm sure there's been far worse produced under the banner of "entertainment" in other films. But I certainly wasn't prepared for how shocking and graphic the last hour or so would be. Not that I'd expect the word "understatement" to be part of Cameron's vocabulary (he who brought us such, umm, vivid films as "Terminator 2" and "Aliens"). Is it overdone? I thought so. Understatement can sometimes work wonders in conveying tragedy. No, no one expected a happy ending, but I didn't quite expect the horrendously shocking and powerful scenes we were bombarded throughout the film's second half. Still, whether it was overdone and heavy-handed or not, if it was the shock-factor Cameron was after it worked, because I was shocked and moved, in fact I spent most of the last hour in tears!

You really couldn't help but get emotionally involved, whether it was wishing someone would knock that dreadfully psychotic fiance of Rose's overboard or desperately hoping that Rose would rescue Jack, or that Jack would rescue Rose, or that they would both survive. Perhaps the most harrowing scene was when the ship has sunk, and those that sunk along with the ship freeze to death on the water surface. The bit where Rose lets go of Jack's hand, while promising she'll never let go in her heart was particularly heart-wrenching, and the sight of rescue boats sailing amid the ocean of corpses was a pretty powerful image, to put no fine a point on it. I loved the ending, however, which was both moving and slightly uplifting following the horror of the past hour and a half.

So, we've established that the film is powerful and moving, if the last hour was rather excessive. Haven't mentioned the script. Plot-wise it's OK, though the Jack/Rose relationship was beautifully developed, but I've a feeling that's to the actors credit if anything. As for the dialogue…well, Titanic is set in 1912. It's a period drama. But I saw very little indication of period in so far as the dialogue is concerned. Did they really use phrases like "Goddamn it!" back in the turn of the century? I doubt it. Would someone talk like this: "Do ya love the guy or what?". I doubt it. Is such dialogue as "I saw the iceberg, and I see it in your eyes now" not just a bit…clumsy? Yes it is. A little more attention to dialogue would not have gone astray, and Cameron himself is to blame (he wrote the script). Stick with directing, dude.

But its more than redeemed by the acting, with DiCaprio and Winslet on fine form, ably supported by a strong cast. Star of the show was Gloria Stuart, though -- why didn't she win that Oscar?! After all, they were throwing Oscars at "Titanic" left, right and centre, but Gloria was perhaps the most deserving nominee. Directing-wise Cameron does a spectacular job. Like I said, his vision was a bit excessive, but at least he directed it well. I haven't even mentioned James Horner's beautiful score. Utterly heavenly, though when your Dad and sister play the soundtrack a lot you do start to get a bit bored with it! ;-)

I've finished my rant, which lasted a lot longer than I thought it would! Just leaves a couple of questions; was it worth all those Oscars? Hell, don't talk to me about Oscars. Bloomin' farce. It was deserving in a number of departments, though. Last question; is it, as some suggest, one of the best films of all-time? Nope, I don't think so. It's certainly one of the most powerful and memorable films I've ever seen, but I don't think it quite ranks as one of my all-time favourites. And as for the fact they're reportedly making a "Titanic 2"…well I guess that's typical Hollywood for you!

Written by and (c) Rory B Mackay, 1998

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