“Titanic was called the ship of dreams. And it was. It really was,” a 100-year-old Rose Dawson Calvert gushes in the first few minutes of James Cameron’s epic yet tragic love story about the fated steamship. And, almost immediately, the film hurtles back through time just as the RMS Titanic is ready to set sail on April 10, 1912, from Southampton, England. Viewers witness the doomed liner’s gleaming beauty and size of epic proportions as young Rose peers up from beneath her hat’s wide brim and soaks in the wondrous sight. But while the majestic ship itself is clearly the main attraction in Cameron’s reenactment, it’s not so much in Julian Fellowes’ four-part ITV miniseries (produced by Bleak House mastermind Nigel Stafford Clark) that will soon air on ABC in the U.S. Instead, in the Downton Abbey creator’s version, the maritime catastrophe itself takes a modest backseat to the social mores, class interactions, and stiff Edwardian tendencies of that period.
It’s challenging to review Fellowes’s adaptation of that fateful voyage without drawing comparisons to Cameron’s beloved sensation which premiered in 1997. (It’s still so fresh in fan’s minds, especially with its recent 3-D release.) For one thing, Cameron had two fresh-faced and mesmerizing leads—Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet—to work with. Their blazing passion, along with the ship’s terrifying submersion into the calm yet eerie waters below, is the movie’s primary focus. Moreover, with a vivid, play-by-play reenactment of the liner’s final hours, Cameron really depicts the direness of the disaster.
Fellowes, on the contrary, features a whole slew of talented actors, each with a different story to narrow in on. The only problem with this approach is that there are so many characters (a principal cast of over eighty actors) to introduce that they aren’t given a chance to appeal to viewers before time shifts and they’ve suddenly gone from sipping tea and relishing scones to clambering to remain afloat. The heart-wrenching events of that moonless night seem a bit rushed (which is usually the crux of an ensemble feature).
Regardless, although Fellowes’s sea-faring series does not romanticize the run-in with the iceberg (which is struck merely a third of a way into the first episode), nor glorify any singular relationship forged on the Titanic, he does focus on issues of humanity and how the best and worst is brought out of people during times of disaster and chaos. All the panic and complete disregard for heroism is especially highlighted during the mad dash for lifeboats and a fed-up Second Class passenger’s violent outburst towards an uppity First Class passenger. Through a plethora of perspectives ranging from upper class guests to steerage passengers and servants, the four-part Titanic miniseries embraces what the unforgettable experience was like for everyone on board, not just a lone couple.
Truth be told, the first part of Fellowes’s miniseries left me unimpressed. As a Downton Abbey fan, I was expecting a feast of crisp dialogue and tension as frigid as the waters of the North Atlantic, but there was way too much superficial class talk and the drama was seriously lacking. Plus, the grandeur of the ship itself was barely captured. Viewers aren’t allowed the opportunity to indulge in the advanced architectural design and wardrobe refineries. Nevertheless, I don’t want to be too quick to judge Fellowes’s miniseries without having watched the remainder of the series. After all, what sets this adaptation apart from others is the suspense. Everyone already knows the terrible outcome of the Titanic’s maiden voyage, but Fellowes has infused an air of mystery by structuring his version in an unusual fashion—by introducing new guests on board and having the ship hit the iceberg in each episode. He then retells the sinking from the beginning but from different characters’ perspectives. Who will die? Who will survive? These are two questions that viewers will not find out until the fourth episode airs. This unique storytelling technique alone has intrigued me enough to continue tuning in.
Here is who you will meet in the first part of the Titanic miniseries: The suffragette Georgianna Grex (who has been arrested for her efforts and loves spewing assertions about “writers and rebels angry at their fellow-man’s injustices”) and her well-to-do parents Hugh (the philandering Earl of Manton) and Louisa (the inhospitable Countess of Manton). Also introduced is American millionaire Harry Widener who takes an all too quick liking to Georgianna after a brief spin on the dance floor. Notable second class passengers include the polite John Batley, an Irish lawyer who works for Hugh, and his vociferous wife Muriel. There’s the Rushtons who are considered ”new money," much to the Countess of Manton’s disdain. Moreover, there is gin-swigging, holidaying actress Dorothy Gibson who is pretty much a 24/7 scandal machine, according to the accented aristocrats on the First Class deck. Snobs and snoots aside, there are plenty of promising characters on board—from charismatic crew members (look out for the interesting ’villainous’ portrayal of the long-admired Captain Smith) to bustling servants (including a charming, eager-to-please Italian server and new Doctor Who companion Jenna-Louise Coleman who slips in and out of first-class cabins with such a refreshing sunshiny demeanor that you can’t help but want to get better acquainted with her).
Despite its slow and slightly disappointing opener, one thing’s for sure: A Julian Fellowes television series promises compelling characters and a Downton-on-seas approach in its commemoration of the Titanic. It’s quite apparent, judging by the flurry of new stories and adaptations that the allure to the White Star Line ship is just as strong today as it was a hundred years ago and the tragedy resonates just as deeply. I look forward to the other three remaining episodes.
Are you intrigued enough by the Titanic’s ill-fated voyage and Julian Fellowes’ success with Downton Abbey to tune in? Or are you tired of everyone – from publishes to filmmakers – rushing to honor the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking? And to those who have watched the first episode, what are your thoughts? What would you like to see more/less of? Chime in below!