April is only three days old and I bet you’ve already noticed that it’s Titanic Month! Indeed, it’s the hundredth anniversary of the disaster. To celebrate, the 1997 Oscar-winning movie is back in theaters–now with an extra dimension (and a new scene, sort of). But more interestingly, there’s a four-part miniseries by Julian Fellowes, the creator of my beloved “Downton Abbey.” Fellowes’s miniseries is already airing in Britain and will air in the US on April 14. And as Fellowes has happily followed James Cameron’s maxim that “size matters” by creating the most expensive television drama in British history, the pressing question is whether this was money well spent. Through the magic of the internet, I am–like the British audience–halfway through the show; these are my preliminary thoughts.
The thing I still don’t understand about this miniseries is why Fellowes wanted to do it in the first place. As the hot hand in highbrow soap opera, he could have gotten any project made (even, I have no doubt, a Wallis and Edward movie). And yet he chose to return to the beginning of “Downton Abbey”–it is the sinking of the Titanic that drowns the heir to Lord Grantham’s title and upsets Downton society. It’s as if Fellowes feels compelled to “reset” things and to tell the story again, but this time tracing the effects of the disaster on a new set of characters. And compulsion is probably the right word here, because Fellowes doesn’t just tell the story one more time; rather, the narrative structure of the miniseries is such that the ship sinks again at the end of each episode. We relive the disaster four times, each time with a focus on different characters and storylines (although we won’t find out who lives and dies until episode four). In an exemplary demonstration of traumatic logic, we keep reliving the disaster, although it remains to be seen if the story will work through this trauma by the end of the fourth episode.
But aside from the repetition compulsion, it’s not yet clear what story Fellowes wants to tell. From the start, what worried me most about this miniseries is how it would deal with its predecessor, Cameron’s $200 million dollar iceberg. The problem here is that Cameron’s film was a big movie in almost every way. One consequence of this “bigness,” is that the film has become so well-known that it now mediates our relationship to the actual historical event itself. You can imagine the Vietnam War (for example) apart from Apocalypse Now, but I’m not sure that you can think about the Titanic without picturing Titanic. At this point, the question of whether Cameron’s film is actually any good is more or less irrelevant–all its cheesiness is just a slightly embarrassing footnote (but incredibly enjoyable to mock). And so, even after fifteen years, is it possible to tell a story about Titanic without inviting comparison to Cameron’s box office dreadnaught?
Fellowes was clearly haunted by this question and, unfortunately, the first episode shows his inability to escape Cameron. Again and again, we get camera shots that are almost literal recreations of Cameron’s: the ship at the dock, the awestruck upward gaze of passengers, the seawater bursting into the engine rooms. Now, obviously, all of these shots are reasonable ways of telling this story–indeed, Titanic must have looked immense compared to the wharf-side buildings, it must have struck awe into the passengers about to board, and seawater clearly did swamp the engine rooms. But these shots are also recycled; they are ways of telling Cameron’s story, not Fellowes’s. Even worse, many of these shots seem particularly ill-chosen in that they highlight the inability of an expensive television production to reproduce the special effects of an expensive movie–even a movie that is fifteen years old. Cameron’s ship may look slightly unreal in the Southampton sunlight, but Fellowes’s ship looks like a painting (and don’t even get me started on the iceberg). Imitating Cameron is bad, imitating Cameron on a budget is even worse.
It’s not just the cinematography that seems vaguely familiar, but many of the characters and incidents. I’m not talking about the actual historical personages like Benjamin Guggenheim or Harry Elkins Widener (who I consider indirectly responsible for my best undergraduate sexual experience). Rather, there is a troubling similarity between the fictional material on which both Cameron and Fellowes build their dramas. Indeed, the first episode includes:
- A plucky society girl who is unhappy with her lot in life.
- An irrepressible working class Italian youth who makes it onto the boat at the last minute.
- Snobby rich people saying snobby rich people things to each other.
- Oh, and there’s even a subplot about the whereabouts of a very large diamond brooch.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Luckily, Fellowes is not entirely smothered by Cameron. I love “Downton Abbey” because Julian Fellowes is really good at two things. One of them is exploring the minute gradations of the complicated class system, and this is where Fellowes has the advantage on Cameron. Cameron’s analysis of class is rudimentary: the boring swells vs. the fun-loving proles, which side will Rose choose? Fellowes wants to complicate this schema, although this doesn’t start to pay off until episode two. In the miniseries, the conflict is not just first-class vs. steerage; we also get second class (professionals who consider themselves respectable, yet who resent first class). We get the very real resentments of first-class servants vs. second-class servants, American servants vs. English servants. We get Irish vs. English and Catholic vs. Protestant. (Not to mention hints that there may be an anarchist or two aboard; fingers crossed!) Class isn’t simple–especially not when it intersects with gender and nationality–and taking this complexity seriously is what makes “Titanic” more than just an easy entertainment. (I am particularly fond of a scene in episode 2 in which Benjamin Guggenheim, who has chosen to go down with the ship, gives his valet permission to attempt to save himself. You can almost–just for a second–read in the valet’s face the cracks in the motivating ideologies of class aspiration, personal allegiance, and professional pride. He remains with Guggenheim, of course.)
The other thing that Fellowes is good at is creating believable characters who are much more honorable, kind, and decent than the typical characters in a soap opera (seriously, there are only like two irredeemably evil characters in the entire Downton universe). Indeed, so much of the drama in “Downton Abbey” comes from good people forgetting–for a short time–how to be good to other good people. This may sound dull, but it’s not. And it’s this kind of thing that “Titanic” needs more of. The highlight of the miniseries so far is the marriage of the Batleys, played by Toby Jones (most recently of The Hunger Games) and Maria Doyle Kennedy (the iredeeemably evil Mrs. Bates from “Downton Abbey”). In episode 1, the marriage reads like a cliche of henpecking and resentment; in episode 2, the Fellowes magic kicks in and we begin to see the goodness and devotion underneath it all. It’s sentimental and not entirely believable, but it’s emotionally satisfying–more so than anything Leo and Kate said to each other fifteen years ago. The problem with sinking the ship at the end of every episode, of course, is that there is only a limited time to develop characters before they start running for the lifeboats. But if Fellowes can manage to return to some of the characters throughout the miniseries (as he has done with the Batleys), we may actually care–when the boat sinks for the fourth and final time–who remains afloat.