Writer Julian Fellowes is in his element with British classes coming asunder in a sprawling, century-old tragedy. But will it float as entertainment?
Here’s a Spoiler Alert if ever there was one: the Titanic will sink.
There. Now we can talk.
With James Cameron’s Titanic already having been seen by squillions across the globe, can there really be room for a new dramatic version? Probably not, but such is our collective fascination with the tragedy that many of us, including me, would happily sit down for another re-telling anyway.
When you have a writer as gifted as Julian Fellowes all the more reason to partake.
Fellowes, like many British screenwriters, loves to analyse the classes and Titanic allows him to do just that in spades. First Class, Second Class, Third Class, Servants and Steerage. They are there in droves for him to play with.
This 4 part dramatisation is a mix of both fact and fiction, with Fellowes depicting real characters and those of his own creation. One of the story’s biggest challenges is the parade of characters. If you thought Downton Abbey was busy, wait until you see this -nicknamed Drownton Abbey in the UK.
There’s the Earl of Manton, his wife Lady Manton, suffragette daughter Georgiana and servants Barnes and Watson. There’s Irish lawyer John Batley and wife Muriel, American rich boy Harry Widener, and glimpses of Titanic crew and other passengers who will become more prominent in subsequent episodes. And that’s just for starters.
Episode one focusses on the Manton clan and establishes the attitudes amongst the wealthiest as the White Star liner makes her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.
Georgina (Perdita Weeks) may be a handful to her father (Linus Roache) but she is instantly attracted to Harry (Noah Reid) -shades of Jack and Rose from Cameron’s epic, in this young romance but they avoid ‘King of the World’ moments and steaming up cars in the cargo.
Lady Manton (Geraldine Somerville) spends so much time looking down her noses at others, that Muriel Batley (Maria Doyle Kennedy) embarrasses her with a home truth at a most inopportune moment.
But while the opening hour is somewhat sluggish in setting up its lengthy cast, the surprise from Fellowes is that the iceberg strikes the liner not long after the half-way mark. With three more episodes in his arsenal, it’s a bold storytelling move.
Here is where Titanic cleverly tackles the challenge of addressing an outcome everybody already knows, and the alternative of having three hours of costume drama before sinking the ship in the fourth. Instead, Titanic will begin to sink three times, across three episodes.
The script shifts focus for each episode, telling the tale from varying perspectives. Each episode ends on a cliffhanger -will our heroes live or die- and not resolving them until all the storylines intersect in the climax. It’s a genius way around two problems.
Other characters in subsequent episodes will feature Captain Smith, Italian waiter Paolo Sandrini and brother Mario, Cabin steward Annie Desmond, mystery man Peter Lubov, engineer Jim Maloney and wife Mary, and (the unsinkable) Mrs. Brown.
Famous moments are re-created, including the fight for life-boats, women and children first, passengers being locked behind gates, the musicians playing on, the captain refusing to leave. Fellowes fuses these legendary moments with his own touches: romance, jealousy, jeopardy, mystery…
The performances, costumes, settings and CGI all come up trumps. If there are any misgivings it is in Fellowes’ own script, ambitiously seeking to portray so many classes -the number of principal and support characters the viewer is expected to follow can be quite overwhelming. But things gets better with each passing adventure.
The final hour is, of course, Titanic‘s money-shot. Here it becomes grand, tragic and poetic. I can’t say with any confidence that it eclipses James Cameron’s epic (and many forget the highly under-rated 1958 A Night to Remember), but if you’ve come this far you want to be suitably horrified and Titanic won’t let you down.
100 years on, this is still a tale that captivates our imagination.
Titanic begins 8:30pm Wednesday April 18 on Seven.