There have been countless tragedies of epic proportions in the past century, yet the sinking of the Titanic, 100 years ago this month, remains as inconceivable and moving as it must have been in 1912.
It also led to the further tragedy that is James Cameron’s inflated ego. But while that man’s Oscar-drenched vessel returned to the big screen recently in 3D, a very different – and more credible – writer’s version of events hit the small screen.
Well, at least Julian Fellowes was credible before this good-looking mess. One can only assume that ITV1’s Titanic was scripted in-between sips of a G&T on the Downton Abbey set, what with dialogue so awkward and explanatory the characters may as well have stayed mute and worn nameplates: Plucky Suffragette; Stoic Cockney; Criminal Eastern-European.
More bizarrely, the boat sinks at the end of each of the four episodes in the mini-series, with scenes and moments revisited to focus on different characters. It’s an intriguing idea, to present the story in a manner reminiscent of the fragmented information we have at our disposal. Unfortunately, in 45-minute instalments, it’s a gambit that just doesn’t pay off.
Character relationships struggle to be established and developed in their allotted 10 seconds, and any accumulative power to be got from piecing a scene together is dissolved by the fact that few of them are particularly interesting.
There are arresting moments, however, such as Toby Jones’ silent confrontation with the iceberg in the dead of night, or the survivors watching helplessly from lifeboats as fellow passengers are heard screaming even more helplessly on the sinking ship. And there’s one tiny trace of Fellowes’ wit when Jones’ character describes how the iceberg towered over him, only to be greeted with his wife’s pithy response: “Everything towers over you.”
Despite the numerous examples of irony in the source material – the vessel was “unsinkable,” passengers were transferred from other ships, the captain was brought back for one last voyage – the tragedy lies in that the whole Titanic saga seemed so random. Many died, some didn’t, regardless of race, gender or class.
The trouble with retellings of the story is that writers contrive to bring “meaning” to it by forcing moral-of-the-story statements into their characters’ mouths, creating romances on paper-thin bases (there are at least four relationships formed by the time this Titanic sinks), and drawing “arcs” over a happening far more complex than an ordinary Sunday night drama can handle.
Scenes intended to break our hearts therefore end up feeling hollow. And that truly is unfortunate – all one really needs to do in order to capture the tragedy of the SS Titanic is, in fact, simply to say its name.
Released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 16th April 2012 by ITV Studios Home Entertainment.
Watch the trailer…
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