I’ve only seen Titanic once in my life. It was in 1997 in Santry. I remember it very well because for the first time, with absolute certainty, I could say I had a least favourite film. Yes, I was only a teenager but I was very much a film fanatic. Our house had hundreds of movies on video not to mention books and encyclopedias. I was by no means a rookie and, while not nearly as mature as I am now (shut up), I still had all the requisite tools for judging a film. Twenty years later I’ve seen hundreds more movies and some of them have been truly dreadful. Watching Titanic again for the first time since, well, the first time, I didn’t think my opinion would change much. I knew the parts which annoyed me then would annoy me now but with a much broader knowledge of film, my antipathy towards James Cameron’s billion dollar Oscar winner may change from outright loathing to a simple dissatisfaction. It didn’t. I still hate this movie.
Titanic is about two teenagers from different social backgrounds who fall into a forbidden love when they meet on the doomed ship. You’d think a film called “Titanic” would be actually about the RMS Titanic which famously sank on its maiden voyage killing over 1500 people. That would be an interesting film. Alas no. What we get is a film about Rose and Jack, two people who never existed in real life yet are the most important part of the whole ship apparently.
The idea of having fictional characters in a historical setting is acceptable as long as they represent the social or political context of the time, have little interaction with each other and even less contact with famous figures from history who actually lived and died. Titanic fails on all three counts. Rose (Kate Winslet) is a rich girl who hates her life of privilege and her wealthy, therefore monstrously evil family. Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) is poor but apparently it’s the really, really fun kind of poor so it’s all good. They fall in love, the ship sinks, he dies and she gets old.
Other than some lame plotline about a diamond necklace, the moustache curling first class passengers and a generous sprinkling of twee Oirishness there is nothing further to add. The characters are little more than cookie cutter Romeo and Juliet types with none of the complexity or humanity. Their love is so contrived and unbelievable it’s impossible to connect with them beyond anything seen in a fantasy tale, not exactly fitting considering the backdrop. Jack is the struggling artist who drinks and spits so we must love him. Rose is the poor lost girl who needs someone to bring her to life so we must love her.
The script itself is truly abysmal and not even the Academy saw fit to include it in its many awards nominations. Rose and Jack have little if anything to say to each other beyond their own names. The level of dialogue never rises above the level of “That Picasso fellow will never make it”. This, coupled with acting so stilted they could have walked the North Atlantic, makes it unwatchable for me. It’s an incredible cast yet not a single one managed to move me beyond irritation. Cameron has a great aesthetic talent yet when it comes to humanity, especially for a film which demands it, he simply does not deliver. I remember after watching it first thinking how much better it would have been if someone like Robert Altman (who described the film as “the most dreadful piece of work I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”) had given it a go. All classes, passengers and crew would have their own story arcs, the humanity would have been explored a lot more and the class structure would have been given more dignity than the repugnant love story.
Then the ship hits the iceberg and the action begins. For most people the film gets better from here on but even at this point I could not engage with Titanic. Yes the effects and stunt work are impressive but when you want the two leads to die and spend the whole time worried about everyone else losing their lives, you know the film has made a mistake. Even afterwards when they all gather together on the Carpathia, Rose hides from her own mother who also survived because she dared to not like her boyfriend. What a selfish cow.
Of course the tropes that come with a forbidden love angle aren’t inherently wrong. Yes a good movie can be made about socioeconomic divides in the Edwardian era but even a story and script as bad as this does not singlehandedly make me hate this movie. If it were just that I’d simply dismiss it. No, what truly repulses me is this; RMS Titanic was REAL. It was a real ship that did indeed sink and over a thousand actual people lost their lives. It was one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. The true stories about the men, women and children who died are utterly heartbreaking, Entire libraries of books have been written about the ship, the passengers and the enquiries after it sank.
There is a treasure trove of misery to make a wonderful script but Cameron ignored it all. We are meant to care more for Jack and Rose than anyone else and this to me is unacceptable.It has trivialized the genuine loss of life and that is just wrong. Worse still is that the crewmen who in reality gave their lives trying to save people are depicted as inhumane grunts who locked third class passengers below deck and, if they got out of hand, shot them dead. Historical inaccuracy I can take on a certain level but I draw the line at disregarding the real people who either drowned or froze to death. But I guess being respectful is too much to ask from this obnoxious drivel.
Is there anything positive I can say about Titanic. Yes. On a technical level it certainly is brilliant. I’d be wrong not to acknowledge the production and costume design for recreating the magnificent ship and the general splendour of that era. The research was extensive but sadly misdirected as all the detail and accuracy of the clothes and cutlery cannot mask the appalling dialogue, dreadful acting and the diminishing of the real human tragedy that occurred in 1912.
Before I watched this movie back in 1997 I had the fortune of seeing A Night To Remember, Roy Baker’s masterful interpretation of the event starring Kenneth Moore and Honor Blackman. I cannot recommend this movie enough. You will witness all the hopes and dreams RMS Titanic represented torn apart as a result of the devastating calamity. Maybe such horror would not have made Titanic a billion dollars but the authenticity of A Night to Remember makes it for a wholly more satisfying experience. Like Titanic I have only seen it once but it stuck with me the way a film about a massive loss of human life should; with harrowing anguish and not tie curling nausea.