|DVD Romantic Drama|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 31 August 1999|
By now, there are surely very few people left in the movie-watching world who haven’t seen ‘Titanic.’ There must be fewer still who aren’t aware that the mult-Oscar winner is the top-grossing film in history. This doesn’t mean that it’s the best film ever made, or even the best film released in 1997, but it’s still damn good.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of director/writer James Cameron’s achievement with ‘Titanic’ is that the three-hour-and-15-minute running time simply races by - there’s never a dull moment. This is even more impressive when one takes into account that, apart from some deep dive footage in the present-day wraparound sections, the ocean liner itself cruises smoothly ahead for approximately the first two hours.
It is safe to assume that virtually all viewers know before they sit down to watch the fate of the passenger ship Titanic, a supposedly unsinkable trans-Atlantic craft that ripped her hull open on an iceberg and went down on an April night in 1912. Out of over 2,000 people aboard, only 700 survived, due to a catastrophic combination of poor planning, overconfidence and deadly class prejudices. Cameron integrates all of this into his tale, but his primary concern is the romance between aristocratic young Rose Dewitt Bukater (Kate Winslet in the bulk of the film, Gloria Stuart in the present-day wraparounds) and penniless young artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio).
We know from the outset that Rose has lived well into old age, since we first meet her at the age of 101. Recognizing a drawing of herself recovered from the Titanic wreckage, Rose contacts the salvage crew headed by brash Brock Lovett (an agreeable, brash Bill Paxton). Brock flies the old woman out to his vessel, moored directly above the remains of the Titanic. There Rose gives her eyewitness account of the voyage, the infamous night that ended it, and the relationship that shaped her life as much as the tragedy itself did.
The cutaways to the present day are as good a device for providing exposition as any, and Camera gets some honest laughs out of the agog reactions of the salvage crew to some of Rose’s more personal details. However, the flashback structure undercuts some suspense. We already know what happened to the ship; being aware of Rose’s fate as well tends to make us more curious than actively apprehensive as to how she’ll get out of her many tight jams. We are always intrigued and often moved, but our certainty of Rose’s survival has a way of keeping us at a distance from her plights.
The unfolding relationship between Rose and Jack is always highly entertaining and expertly modulated, if not ground-breaking in its specifics. Winslet is a compelling central figure as Rose, able to move from coquettishness to utter sincerity with easy, making the most of her comedic moments and convincing us that her heart is in her throat when she faces mortal danger. DiCaprio is engaging as Jack, adroitly delivering some overly on-the-nose romantic dialogue with conviction and conveying thoroughgoing human decency. A strong pre-disaster setpiece in Chapter 11 finds the couple below decks, drinking and dancing at an impromptu Irish music session among the steerage passengers. The sound mix here is first-rate, as is the band (L.A.-based Gaelic Storm, who appear onscreen). The scene quickens the pulse while making us more sympathetic not only to the leads but to their fellow voyagers.
Dramatically and visually, the film’s apex is the sinking of the ship, which begins in Chapter 16 with the iceberg’s impact and escalates through some epic special effects and extraordinary stuntwork in Chapters 24 through 27. Cameron, a technical wizard, makes the audience feel as though we’re there, witnessing history in all its traumatic grandeur. he makes the massive death toll a matter of poignancy without making it literally unwatchable. He also does a marvelous job of weaving together a host of supporting characters and subplots so that we feel that we have some knowledge of - and investment in - every aspect of life aboard the Titanic. When the ship succumbs and those who built her are faced not only with their mortality but with their great failure, we experience a sense of pity, just as we feel outrage on behalf of those denied even a chance at life.
The regular DVD edition of ‘Titanic’ has few of the customary frills (no making of or dialogue-track commentary here), but it does have one bonus that other disks would do well to emulate. On the sleeve insert’s list of chapters, there are color photos to go along with the titles, so that it’s not necessary to stop the film and go to the menu to find the right section. The printed list provides all the visual cues that are necessary.
‘Titanic’ has a few flaws but still emerges as a remarkable achievement, narratively and technically.