Way back in 1996, Titanic was shaping up to be a folly of the first order. James Cameron’s epic depiction of one of the 20th century’s most notorious disasters was reputedly mired in a chaotic, out of control shoot and the budget eventually escalated to an estimated $200 million. It was, in short, shaping up to be another Heaven’s Gate and the Hollywood press was in a frenzy.
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Fast forward to the start of 1998 and Cameron stood proudly aloft at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, clutching two of Titanic’s 11 Oscars. Borrowing one of the lines from the movie, Cameron pronounced himself ‘the king of the world’, a display of ego for sure but it also indicated how he’d triumphed over incredible odds.
Titanic defied all expectations, grabbing the largest clutch of Academy Awards since Ben Hur (it also received the same amount of nominations, 14, as All About Eve). It was also the first film to break the $1 billion dollar barrier at the box office – this latter point is generally attributed to the extraordinary amount of repeat viewings. Not bad for a film that was initially threatening to make waves for all the wrong reasons.
The film demonstrated remarkable cross-generational appeal, largely due to Cameron’s savvy merging of intimate love-story with the depiction of the disaster itself. It’s a technique that holds up well in the 14 years since the film’s UK release. By putting a personal, albeit fictional, face on events, Cameron accentuates the human cost without ever diminishing the impact of the tragedy itself – a risky strategy but one that pays off due to Cameron’s underrated abilities as a compassionate storyteller.
The film is also rife with the undercurrents of spirituality and redemption so prevalent in the director’s work. In modern times, an elderly lady named Rose (Gloria Stewart) recounts the story of Titanic to a rapt audience of bounty hunters, who’ve scoured the wreck of the Titanic in search of a rare diamond. Rose claims she is the nude woman depicted in a drawing removed from a safe.
Through her eyes, we flashback to 1912: Rose is now played by Kate Winslet, a ‘poor little rich girl’ engaged to sneering Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). In a classic ‘star crossed lovers’ plot device, Rose falls for a penniless boy from steerage, Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and rebels against her privileged background, including her starchy mother (Frances Fisher). However, their love affair is doomed when the ship makes its fatal collision with the iceberg, sealing the fate of all those on-board.
First off, on a purely technical level, Titanic is an extraordinary achievement, but then all of Cameron’s pictures are. Always a director interested in mechanics and how machines operate, his relentless attention to detail combined with the real historical context seals the movie as a gripping experience. Whether it’s the jaw-dropping aerial shot of the ship ‘stretching her legs’ at sea for the first time, or the horrifying moment it breaks in two, plummeting temporarily back into the ocean, the film really is a transporting experience.
On the big screen, one can better appreciate the juxtaposition of the grander gestures with the minutiae: the plush decor of Rose’s cabin; the mechanical clanking of the dampers; the frantic clicking of the telegraph machine as the Titanic seeks help from these nearby. It’s an incredibly visceral experience across the board, from Russell Carpenter’s cinematography to Peter Lamont’s plush sets and Gary Rydstrom’s cavernous sound design. The film is also a masterful merging of practical sets and CGI effects: the exterior of the ship was filmed at Fox Baja Studios, lending a sense of visceral, lived-in realism, whilst melding seamlessly with the computer effects and scale models.
But it would all be for nought were Cameron’s character gamble unsuccessful. He was fortunate to secure two likeable, vivacious leads in the form of DiCaprio and Winslet, actors who are able to sell the director’s frequently risible dialogue and pull the audience into the drama. What resonates especially strongly now is Winslet’s sense of character struggle, her desire to escape the ‘great precipice’ of dinners, balls and cocktail parties. The actress’ unaffected vitality, for which she has become acclaimed, serves her well in a thinly written role. The film was to catapult both actors into super-stardom, although Winslet steered away from blockbusters in the film’s wake.
They’re backed by a brace of strong supporting performers, including Kathy Bates as the Unsinkable Molly Brown, Victor Garber as the ship’s bereft architect Andrews and a quietly powerful role for Bernard Hill as Captain Smith. Such resonant performances make the inevitable plunge into tragedy a heart-rending one, as we witness lives and relationships wrenched apart in the slow-build terror during the film’s second half. The film is an emotional achievement as much as it is a technical one, and the ensuing chaos as the ship meets her fate marks some of Cameron’s finest work.
That said, it’s not a masterpiece, or indeed Cameron’s most accomplished film. The dialogue is awful, despite the leads’ best efforts (‘Isn’t he great?’ is DiCaprio’s incisive assessment of painter Monet); the rampant stereotyping is tiresome (blarney filled Irish folk; nebbish Englishmen who of course lock the lower classes below decks); and many talented actors are cast adrift due to poor writing (David Warner’s sour valet looks as if he’s walked off the set of Dawn of the Dead). Meanwhile, the insipid Celine Dion ballad My Heart Will Go On continues to grate at the nerves (even Winslet’s reportedly).
But in an era where plasticised effects and a relentless sound design are relied on to increase the heart-rate, Cameron’s emotional honesty, combined with his astonishing technical prowess, means Titanic is an immensely satisfying, if paradoxically old-fashioned, experience. It’s certainly hard to argue with the film’s power, especially as DiCaprio and Winslet, stranded on the stern section of the ship, begin the inexorable plunge into the frigid North Atlantic, James Horner’s formerly lyrical score distorted into a frightening cacophony. It’s a harrowing, emotionally exhausting experience but one which honours, rather than demeans, those who lost their lives.