The setup: 2,200 people get on a ship, the ship hits an iceberg, 700 survive.
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.
For those who were sleeping under piles of soiled quilts all weekend, occasionally looking blearily out the window to see if it had stopped raining and then burrowing deeper, we just marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Which was, like, kind of a big deal, historically speaking, despite the shockingly large number of people on Twitter who thought it was a James Cameron movie.
And, you know, I can’t blame them for being confused on this one, because Cameron pretty much decisively wrote the book on that one in 1997. I can’t be the only Person of a Certain Age who saw it an embarrassingly large number of times in the theater. If I had invested the money I spent on “Titanic” tickets in, say, gold, I’d be sitting pretty right now, let me tell you.
But Julian Fellowes decided to have a crack at it anyway, with a four part miniseries commissioned to commemorate the anniversary. I love the shit out of Julian Fellowes as does the lovely Lesley Kinzel (along with the gaggle of readers who adore her “Downton Abbey” recaps) and I own a well-worn copy of “Gosford Park,” so I sat down to “Titanic” fully expecting to enjoy it.
Fellowes has really mastered the costume drama, and he’s got this era down pat. I couldn’t see how anything could possibly go wrong.
But it did.
Something about “Titanic” was disappointingly lukewarm, and it never really seemed to heat all the way up. On the surface, I loved the narrative style, where we kept revolving around the same events to see them through different eyes, which allowed us to follow characters from different backgrounds, acting on their own motivations. But I just couldn’t get attached to the characters, and all the pretty frocks in the world couldn’t fix that for me.
It didn’t help that the lavish and meticulously detailed sets of Cameron’s 1997 film were nowhere in evidence; we flitted back and forth from a limited number of places and missed things like the stunning skylight that loomed over the first class stairway, let alone the ornate flourishes and details that made the Titanic what it was.
Fellowes, with a deep understanding of stage and setting, seemed to have been a bit limited in terms of scenery; we traipsed through an endless series of corridors and peeped into a few rooms, but that was about it. We missed the sheer gilded age excess that marked the era, and while they made a good faith effort at highlighting class divides, it just wasn’t atmospheric enough for me.
This was clearly a budgetary decision, and I felt like they were trying to go for a moody, dark, introspective look, but it ended up just feeling cheap to me.
I didn’t feel like I was there. I felt like I was watching a high school play. At a private school, of course, I mean, they did have some budget, but still. It was a vague shadow of things that have gone before, a vain attempt that didn’t quite work out.
Which is really a pity, because there’s so much about the story to love, and so much to probe into. I was really excited when I heard that Fellowes was doing this project precisely because he’s so intimately familiar with this era, and has managed to capture it with pitch-perfect success in the past. And he has the capacity to embed amazing class commentary in his work, which is what keeps me coming back over and over again.
“Titanic,” though, felt like it was cramming too much into too small a wrapper, and it was painfully evident. In the flurry to make as many nods to history as possible, the larger historical picture was missed altogether; sure, if you know who Molly Brown was, and who Charles Lightoller was, and if you’ve read through the transcripts of the Titanic hearings, there were little Easter eggs scattered throughout. But expecting that level of historical literacy from viewers was a bit much. As it was, “Titanic” felt more like a sloppy muddle than anything else.
I can’t tell if Fellowes tarnished the shine right off the gilded age, or if we just reached our Titanic Saturation Point too long ago, and the project was doomed from the start. He had a lot to live up to with this endeavor, and it had a sense of being thrown together out of a sense of obligation, not a passion and love for the subject.
I admire the attempt to focus on the people instead of the tragedy, to try to flesh out the lives of individuals on board the ship. But I felt like we never really got to know any of the massive ensemble cast; we were supposed to rely on brief flashes of stereotypes to build impressions of the characters. And I always adore class war, as we know, so I struggled to like “Titanic” for that, but ultimately there wasn’t enough chewy class stuff, or dynamic storylining, to keep me invested in the story.
The quiet interpersonal dramas that worked so well on “Gosford Park” and “Downton Abbey” just didn’t succeed with one of the most famous maritime disasters in history as a backdrop.