It’s no easy feat juggling multiple storylines, whether in a film or a TV drama, but if anyone can pull it off it’s Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes and he does it again here with the first episode of ITV1’s new four-part Titanic mini-series.
Where other writers of such ambitious narratives can leave you feeling as if you’ve been watching the remnants of a dozen different dramas, Fellowes ties his characters’ stories to that of the doomed ship, giving this opening episode an almost tidal sense of unity with its complex relationships.
This is really a story about a single entity – a society – coming apart (literally) at the rivets and as such it never feels itty-bitty or overly dissipated. Like any story with a large cast however, it makes demands on its audience’s memory and concentration. Names are important, particularly in the scene in the servants’ dining room where the ‘upper-class’ servants do their best to shine with the reflected glory of their employers.
Fellowes dissects a society that seems to modern eyes too hierarchical to support itself and which in only two more years will disappear with the outbreak of the First World War. Every scene, no matter how brief, says something about the human struggle to either move up this hierarchy or maintain your place at the top of it.
A loaded silence, a delicate smile, a light but stinging remark are the weapons with which Titanic‘s characters carry out their Darwinistic struggle for social survival.
But for all the sharpness of its observations the show isn’t cynical. Easy-to-frown-at characters like Lady Mounton (Geraldine Somerville in full Gosford Park mode) may be products of their age with all its limitations but in the right – stressful – circumstances they’re capable of breaking free of their set moulds and being gallant and loyal.
There are no villains in Titanic and no heroes either – Second Officer Lightoller (Steven Waddington) for example is both a brave man and a fool, risking his own life for others’ but sending the life boats off half empty.
In James Cameron’s version of the story the fatal iceberg cast a menacing shadow over the first two thirds of the film. Here it makes a much earlier appearance, but without killing the suspense since the episode concludes on a cliff-hanger, with none of the characters’ fates sealed.
However, as we know, the drama has a non-linear structure, jumping back in time at the start of each episode. Can Fellowes manage to hold the four episodes together with a single story arc or will the script lose momentum in later episodes? So far the prognosis is pretty good.
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 25th March 2012 on ITV1.
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