James Cameron frames the familiar sinking ship story with present-day high-tech bounty hunter Bill Paxton rootling about in the submerged liner in the hope of locating a legendary diamond necklace. His endeavours are observed on TV by a crumbly old dear who phones to say that she is the young woman depicted reclining naked with the valuable maguffin around her neck in a drawing retrieved from the ship. So begins the marathon three hour flashback charting the four-and-a-half day maiden voyage of the Titanic in April 1912.
Having cleverly contrived to show us a computer simulation of the mechanics of the ship’s sinking, Cameron doesn’t have to dick around with action-puncturing explanations during the gripping last hour of running about and drowning business. But that leaves two hours of shipboard romance between grubby-yet-charming urchin Leonardo DiCaprio, who won his ticket in a poker game minutes before the ship sailed, and bored little rich girl Kate Winslet. They make an attractive couple, and as a device for highlighting the rigid class divisions between the toffs on the upper decks and the oiks in steerage this is certainly effective, if a little crude. Somewhat less impressive is the romance itself, which is all-too-often afflicted by moments of High Cheesiness. For reasons best known to Mr. Cameron, his Titanic is crewed almost entirely by Hollywood’s very own Oirish folk, who jig around and down pints of Guinness at the drop of a fiddle, in stark contract to the society stiffs up above, the merest sight of which causes repressed Ms. Winslet to undergo an epiphany, cast off her voluminous garments, and submit to a sound boffing with handsome young rough diamond Leo in the cargo hold. But stifle those groans. Here comes Billy Zane, enjoyably munching huge chunks out of Cameron’s expensive scenery as Kate’s caddish fiance. Such a rotter is our Billy that he’ll think nothing of snatching someone else’s sprog in the hope of saving his own skin when it all goes pear-shaped.
Then there’s the dialogue, which is all-too-often delivered with a sly nudge and a wink to the audience. “I want the maiden voyage of the Titanic to make the headlines,” announces the managing director of the White Star Line. “Picasso will never come to anything,” snorts Zane contemptuously. And so on. Other elements of the story have become so cliched they’re unintentionally hilarious: a whiskery Bernard Hill does his best Cap’n Birdseye as he goes down with his ship, while the string quartet scrape away dutifully on the upper deck as the waves bear down upon them (“Gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure playing with you tonight,” are their leader’s rib-tickling last words).
But where Cameron’s Titanic really scores is in its sheer scale and attention to detail, from the gargantuan machinery in the engine room to the computer-generated steam emerging from passengers’ mouths. Did you know, for example, that the more unsavoury passengers were obliged to undergo beard inspections for fear that they may be harbouring nasty infestations? Despite the suspicion that the DiCaprio and Winslet characters are being manipulated into absurd amounts of additional peril just to ratchet up the suspense a few extra notches in traditional ‘90s blockbuster style during the final reel, it would be a stony-hearted cynic indeed who didn’t get caught up in the human element of the tragedy, despite knowing all along what happens in the end.
This Bristol Film Festival black tie screening marks the, er, 22nd anniversary of the film’s release and takes place, ominously enough, aboard the SS Great Britain. Don’t worry, though – you’re within easy swimming distance of shore. Go here for tickets and further information.