Serialising the events on the Titanic was always going to be a colossal challenge.
Rivalling the legacy of James Cameron’s 1997 epic, a film that defined the youth of numerous potential viewers of the new drama, is no easy task. That aside, writer Julian Fellowes also has to contend with the enormously high expectations cultivated by the mammoth success of Downtown Abbey.
Opening with a reedy, optimistic overture we are introduced to our crew, all full of hope at their passage to new horizons. We take the traditional upstairs/downstairs split, with a few interesting overlaps but owing to the constant switching between cast members, the audience isn’t allowed the time to form any attachments.
With an extremely condensed time period in which to establish relationships, Fellowes struggles to conjure up characters that are sympathetic enough to warrant anything other than the expected amount of distress at their imminent demise. The protagonists all conform to the stereotypes of the period, rather than subtly standing out from traditional social moulds like those in Downton.
Steering clear of Cameron’s linear narrative – whilst well intended – has hindered not helped this debut. The structure jumps rapidly between and within the upper and lower decks, with little of the delicacy we have grown to expect from Fellowes.
The decision to begin the sinking of the Titanic so early in the short series will also no doubt cause controversy. This choice results in the writing feeling rushed – falling over itself to get the action, rather than developing an initial sense of suspense. Once the tables have turned and decorum recedes the audience are still trying to work out the inter-character relations.
The power of Downton’s initial series is just the opposite – the tension is in the action. Each scene rolls seamlessly into the next, moved on by a simple look or pointed line of dialogue. Sadly Fellowes just hasn’t given himself the time to do this with Titanic.
It remains to say that Downton fans will not be disappointed by the costumes, which are as sumptuous as anticipated. Further, the cast are solid – if unexciting with no clear highlights – and the cinematography is rich, but the overall drama of the opening episode lacks a certain weight.
However, Fellowes has proved he is not a writer to be given up on, so perhaps the following episode will inject a little well-needed intricacy into this limp re-enactment.
Airs at 9pm on Sunday 25th March 2012 on ITV1.
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