Without seeing a frame, if you’d heard Julian Fellowes, the creative force behind Gosford Park, Downton Abbey and lots of Conservative Party speeches had turned his robust pen to the story of Titanic, what would you expect? Probably this.
From the first shot, there’s no messing, we’re straight in, with the ship looming in port, a man rushing home to his wife with tickets for the much-heralded maiden voyage, and one of those ominous conversations that always takes place at the start of disaster movies:
“Steerage?” she says. “It won’t be so bad,” he replies. I guess it’s all relative.
From there, we skip around, being introduced to lots of people very quickly, and a lot relies on us knowing the basic framework of the plot, something Fellowes rightfully doesn’t worry about – most people over 30 have always known, and James Cameron took care of the rest.
In the big screen blockbuster, we had a cowardly captain with a big villain’s arrow pointing at him from the outset. Here, it’s some posh bloke insisting too many lifeboats will interfere with the look of his ship: “I will not have the promenade deck ruined or the ladies terrified out of their wits.” So that’s the looming disaster aspect covered then? Tick.
From there it’s a swift return to Fellowes doing what Fellowes does best – beautiful people in bushy hats falling out with each other over sherry. All his trademarks are fully accounted for. Bashful glances between the servants as they go about their business, while the upper classes remain troubled by more worldly concerns – references to suffragette struggles and the Irish Problem abound. And of course, there are the confines of a rocking ship to throw everyone, quite literally, together against the rail, where who knows what attachments may ensue.
But if Fellowes’ flicks of the pen verge on cliché, it’s because they work. The writer is at his best with the intricacies, awkwardnesses, betrayals and opportunities presented by marvellous group set pieces, where the impending doom feels kind of incidental. When everyone’s dancing, this series feels like one that could go on and on – if the ship wasn’t about to hit an iceberg.
And thereby lies the rub. It’s all beautifully shot, definitely comparable with Cameron’s epic in terms of scope and design, and deeper in character, but...
There are just too many characters for the length of time we have to invest in them. This series is only four episodes long in total, we’re already a quarter of the way through, and with the iceberg already making its presence known, there’s no real incentive to get too attached to anyone either. With Fellowes’ skills, it could have been 26 episodes long and really provide a generation-defining tableau of society instead of these strangely arbitrary brushstrokes.
Can everyone be issued a name badge along with a life-jacket for episode two, I wonder? The only one I could remember by the time the credits rolled was Lady Georgiana, and that was only because, let’s be honest, she was the nearest we had to Kate Winslet’s Rose.
Enough people cared about the fates of Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio to make Titanic the highest-grossing film of all time. Fellowes has set himself the almost impossible task of making us bothered about the fates of too many others in less screen time, even something about an indiscretion with a prostitute in Greenwich, bizarrely, which seemed a bit superfluous bearing in mind the boat was sinking. It was at this point I gave up and decided just to enjoy the hats.
SLIDESHOW: Titanic's cast in action...