Drama Reviews

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Titanic, 1997. Directed by James Cameron. Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gloria Stewart, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Bill Paxton, David Warner.

Synopsis: A treasure hunter discovers a drawing in a safe from the Titanic's watery grave. The drawing depicts a girl wearing the Blue Heart of the Ocean, a diamond after which the treasure hunter is searching. When the subject of the drawing, a woman now 101 years old, turns up, she has a tale to tell about the Titanic's ill-fated maiden voyage. Rose, the woman, was travelling to New York to be entered into a marriage of convenience to a wealthy man who will restore her family's affluence. Rose has no interest in this. On the ship, she meets Jack, an itinerant American artist who teaches her to live for the day. They fall in love. Then the ship has its fatal meeting with the iceberg and sinks. Rose survives, but her new lover does not. She uses the ship's demise to slip away into a better, freer life. At the end of her story, the older Rose walks out to the sea where the Titanic and its ghosts await her. She drops the Blue Heart of the Ocean into the water, returns to bed, and dies.

I don't want to suggest that Titanic is great art. I want to make that perfectly clear. It is no more great art than Gone With the Wind, Ben Hur, or Star Wars are art. There are, of course, great studio movies that ARE great art--not many, but a few. Titanic is not such a movie; like the Titanic itself, Titanic is too big and too unwieldy to make that cut. It is an extremely good studio movie. It is an enormous entertainment. But it isn't great art. It's interesting as all get out, though. This is the third or fourth movie to chronicle the Titanic's ill fated maiden voyage and the events now hold the same fascination as a myth or a folktale–an aspect of the story that writer/director James Cameron exploits to the fullest by framing his story as a bittersweet remembrance of lost love (in this it resembles Child's ballads "Barbara Allen" and "The Demon Lover"). Cameron sets his tale in the oral tradition as the testament of a 101 year old survivor and his use of this structure gives the film a sorely needed sense of grace. The events of the movie are not so much predictable as they are foreordained–this is understandable, I think, given that the audience goes in knowing that the ship sinks.

This is a movie that at first seems to make the classic mistake of disaster movies: it thinks the audience is interested in the characters and not the disaster; but something strange happens to this assumption along the way, because the filmmakers themselves are interested in the characters, too. But more than that: Cameron is interested not only in the sinking of the ship, but in the ship itself. The massive budget expended on the film shows up not only in the elaborate staging of the disaster, but in the lavish sets and costumes, on a recreation of the Titanic itself before its date with the iceberg. The iceberg itself doesn't make an appearance until almost an hour and a half into the movie, and it is almost an anti-climax.

Both the attention to detail and the dogged concern for characters pays off in the end. This may very well be the first disaster movie in which the disaster actually means something to the lives of the characters (beyond the usual platitudes of "we can over come this if we just stick together," etc.). Along the way, Cameron indulges in grand gestures--indeed, the film itself is a grand gesture--from the sweeping stem to stern shots of the ship to the string quartet that continues to play as the ship goes down to the montage of the rich and famous meeting death. But the best grand gesture of the movie is at the very end, in which Gloria Stuart drifts off to sleep and returns in death to the ghosts of the Titanic: a haunting image that suggests that despite the claims of how the disaster liberated her character and enabled her to live a full, rich life, she really died in the disaster, if only in spirit. And like Barbara Allen in the folk ballad, she returns to her spirit lover in the end. Despite a bloated and clumsy screenplay, this final sequence justifies every excess and provides the film with a dark note of grace..