Before watching the movie:
Since 1997, James Cameron’s movie has been considered the epitome of the Titanic legend on film, but this is the dramatization of the epitome of the Titanic in print. I suspect that a documentary would have suited the book a little better, but as I have not yet read the book, I can’t definitively say. At least this movie focuses on people who actually existed and characters composed from people who existed.
I’m watching this movie as part of a brief interest in Titanic media outside of the 1997 movie due to reading a short dramatic account of the Carpathia‘s rescue mission, which does not seem to have been dramatized on screen in the way this account sounds like it deserves. Though apparently that telling largely comes from the book The Other Side of the Night, which I now also intend to read.
After watching the movie:
RMS Titanic strikes an iceberg on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. It quickly becomes apparent that the sealing bulkheads meant to prevent such a strike from sinking the ship have already been overwhelmed, and the loss of the ship is inevitable. Second Officer Charles Lightoller leads the evacuation of as many passengers as they can get into lifeboats, but as the growing realization that this indomitable ship is actually going down creeps through the people on board, the orderly evacuation turns into chaos. As the Californian watches on the horizon and finds rationalizations for Titanic‘s behavior that don’t necessitate any action on their part, Carpathia races into action to perform all that is humanly possible.
When I read that the movie focused on Lightoller and a handful of others, I was worried that it might overstep the reporting and humanizing of the facts into dramatic embellishment. However, the storytelling is very subdued. A few people are highlighted to serve as examples for what was going on among the 2200 people aboard the ship, and they do not exaggerate the emotion of any moment. Without any character-driven plots aside from those illustrative moments of what kinds of ways people reacted, the events are able to be foregrounded, and the real creeping horror and tragedy are sketched for the audience.
One of the things that struck me most was the widespread underestimation of the situation early on, because of course trouble with the ship is only ever an inconvenience, not a real emergency. “There’s talk of an iceberg. We’ll probably be delayed a day while they repair.” This grows naturally into the efforts taken to balance the prevention of panic while also stressing the importance of evacuation.
Some of the modelwork is not the most convincing, but water doesn’t scale well for models, and the expense was clearly spared for other scenes of destruction. I can’t tell if the increasing pitch of the rooms was done with actual gimbal-mounted sets or if the camera was tilted and things that needed to shift were rigged. Eventually the pitch becomes enough that the actors probably aren’t that good at faking it, but in earlier scenes, it’s hard to say.
The Cameron movie was focused on creating the most accurate backdrop to tell a pretty basic forbidden love story in front of, but this movie is concerned with accurately conveying the human story of what happened on April 14, 1912. You don’t need to heavily homage Shakespeare to portray love, life, and loss on the Titanic. It was already there, for those who wish to hear their tales.