Tony books his passage. First class.
The word has become an avatar of disaster on the water, of hubris, of pride, of excess and tragedy.
Long before 1997, James Cameron, director of movies like the first two Terminator instalments, Aliens and The Abyss had become a Titanic obsessive. Its scale, its stories, had got under his skin, in a way that Cameron, more than many directors, allows his subjects to do.
The result of that obsession, with the overlay of a simple cross-class love story as a way into the tragedy, gives us a window on both the scale of the creation that was RMS Titanic, the scale of its potential, and really, both the world it represented and the beginning of a social shift that would change that world forever.
Oddly, the clunkiest parts of Titanic are those modern sections with the crew of underwater explorers, poking, some would say indecently, about the bones of the Titanic, looking for an artefact, the Heart of the Ocean, a diamond necklace of scandalous value.
They don’t find the ‘treasure,’ but they do uncover a mystery, a sketch of a naked, unknown young lady, wearing the Heart of the Ocean. And so begins the quest for the woman or her story, as a way of tracking down the necklace.
It’s a surprisingly inelegant way into a movie that eventually steals both our breath and our hearts, the investigators led by Bill Paxton feeling little more than cardboard cut-outs. But to some extent that’s the point – Paxton’s Brock Lovett eventually admits that after all he’s read, all the time he’s spent investigating Titanic, he ‘never got her.’ He’s our identification-character, more than Jack or Rose will be. We who live a hundred years after the Titanic sailed and sank have come to a level of jaded inevitability about her story – yadda yadda Ismay, yadda yadda not enough lifeboats, the facts and figures astounding but hitting us only on a surface level as the Titanic gains increasingly mythic status in our history. We are him. It takes ‘Rose Dawson Calvert,’ through Cameron’s deeper purpose, to make Titanic ‘live’ again for us in a real, modern, meaningful way.
When the elderly Rose begins her story, the film opens up a wider window than our world readily comprehends – a world in a snowglobe of surely-impossible innocence, that had known no world wars, and that, while still rigidly bound by class, seemed open to all through the filmic vessel that is the Titanic – the CGI and the prop and the sets merging (still, after twenty years of viewing) if not seamlessly then quite well enough to become a world of its own, a world within a world, in which anything is at least technically possible, subject to the allowances of class. We meet the young Rose (Kate Winslett), a girl with a destiny and enough brain to rail and struggle against it. We meet Cal Hockley, the destiny made haughty flesh in the person of the superbly sneering Billy Zane. And we meet the film’s chief breath of fresh air, Jack Dawson, Leonardo DiCaprio stepping up into the major leagues. The narrative’s perspective, coming as it does from Rose, sees Jack as embodying a spirit of optimism and joie de vivre which embraces life and opportunity in a way which appeals to the stifled girl on the rigid pathway. There are people who would more judgmentally call Jack itinerant or easily bored and fearful of committing to any single thing, but to Rose, he is an exemplar of the kind of freedom she doesn’t believe she can have. When he saves her from committing suicide, and shows her a kind of freedom and joy in simple, everyday, heartbeat-pleasures, she begins to want more of him and his lifestyle and less and less of her own. But she’s able to help him too, to manoeuvre in what she only grudgingly thinks of as ‘her’ world when necessary.
Oh and then there’s the sinking of the big ship – did we mention that?
Cameron’s layering of characters allows us to touch life at several, if by no means all, layers of Titanic’s society, from Captain Smith, Bruce Ismay of the White Star Line and Thomas Andrews, who designed the ship, to the first class passengers, to the lower classes below decks, to some notable crewmembers, and to add understanding of the ship, the time, and the nature of the voyage and the sinking from all those perspectives – Kathy Bates as Molly Brown, earning her unsinkable reputation, takes to Jack as a fellow ‘stowaway’ in the rich company, while Mr Andrews treats Rose like a daughter, explaining the ship’s construction to her curious mind. We see Captain Smith and Ismay arguing about the need for speed and spectacle on the journey, we witness the iceberg impact, and we come to understand, in a way almost unthinkable to our health and safety-obsessive age, why the collision went if not unnoticed, then at least relatively unpanicked-at throughout a ship that was ‘unsinkable.’
James Cameron is an unreconstructed geek. A nerd. An obsessive when something takes his interest. What that means is that we get a thoroughly painstaking understanding of timescales, impacts, actions and events. Added to his use of techniques that were cutting-edge at the time, and we have the biggest, most realistic Titanic we’ve ever seen, sinking in agonising, realistic, nerve-jangling detail, more because we as an audience know what’s coming, while for Rose, running around the ship, having adventures, being drawn, steaming up her first windows, and rescuing her lover from the machinations of Cal and his valet-cum-henchman, David Warner underplaying beautifully as Lovejoy, it’s a transformative experience in and of itself.
That’s the enduring glorious agony of Titanic – the clock is ticking, and you know it, and initially none of the people on board the ship do. You want to yell at the screen, beg them to get organised, beg them to get help, get something else arranged, and all the while, Cameron, Winslet and DiCaprio give you a love story developing and proving itself in the foreground. There are plenty of things you can pick holes in with Titanic as a movie, but watched twenty years on, it’s still paced well enough to tighten your chest, to push you to the edge of your seat even though you know the inevitable truth. It combines the urgent intensity of a love story and a redemption story, a re-writing of life’s credo, with an examination of older notions of class, and sets it on some of the most spectacular sets and CGI we’d seen up to that point, giving it the sense of a genuinely grown-up Irwin Allen movie, a Poseidon Adventure played with realistic physics.
And then, as people scramble for lifeboats, or as they close themselves in their cabins and hold tight to the ones they love, or jump into the sea and take a desperate chance, it hits you.
It hits you right in the chest.
Sure – Rose and Jack are fictional characters, invented to bring you into the Titanic’s world, and give you an emotional investment in the foreground of the movie.
But the people were real.
The running, the screaming, the jumping-into-the-sea people. The hold-on-tight-to-love-as-life-inevitably-ends people. The mothers and fathers and children. They were real. You’ve met some of them along the way, and all they’ve done is humanise the black and white photographs that look too distant to hit you in the chest. But they were all real, these mostly unnamed-in-the-movie people. Faced with the results of class, and bravado, and mathematical certainty and facing their deaths in the icy ocean.
That’s when Titanic becomes something else, something beyond a standard cross-class love story, or a thriller, or a meticulously reproduced big-screen Downton Abbey-on-sea. When you realise the reality of these people, and you can’t stop the choke coming into your chest, you’ve let Titanic in. When that happens, Rose Dawson has done her job and made you ‘get it.’
Jack’s death may make no storytelling sense – for the love of god man, stop talking and get on a chunk of ice! – but the lesson he leaves in Rose’s life is one she scrupulously learns and applies: don’t wait, do it. Seize the day, have the experience. Do everything you want to do, because every day is a gift of potential, and there are plenty of people who never get that chance. When Rose finally dies at the end of the movie, slipping back to meet all her fellow Titanic passengers, and most of all, her eye-opening Jack, they welcome her not because they have to, but because she’s lived the lives they never got to live.
Titanic won a ton of awards. Twenty years on, it still deserves them. It will go into movie history on that account, combining story, history and lesson in an utterly compelling three-and-a-quarter hours that will stand the test of centuries to come.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk