I now have just two more productions left to review, both of which are television series which came out in 2012, for the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking.
Airing on ITV in the UK, the four-part miniseries Titanic was written by Julian Fellowes, who is perhaps best known as the creator of Downton Abbey: you’d certainly expect him to be well-suited for writing a costume drama such as this. After seeing the adverts, I was excited for this series; I was also interested to see Jenna Coleman – who plays a maid named Annie – as it had just been announced around this time that she would be playing the new companion in Doctor Who.
Unfortunately, the series turned out to be a letdown, even if Jenna Coleman didn’t.
There are a great many characters in this miniseries, both historical and fictional. Some of the historical ones are interesting to see, having not been covered in other productions, such as the actress Dorothy Gibson and the young first-class men Harry Widener and Jack Thayer. But there are far too many characters overall: there’s so much switching back and forth that we don’t get to know them well, and any character development they supposedly experience has little impact. Not that there’s much to know, anyway, as most of the characters are flat as cardboard. Lady Manton is a snob, and that’s it. Her daughter Lady Georgiana is rebellious and contrary, and that’s it. Annie the chirpy maid is certainly likeable, but there’s still not much to her.
Fellowes’ script leaves a lot to be desired: the dialogue is uninspired, the conversations feel unnatural, but worst of all is the structure. Having four episodes to spread its stories out across, the series has an unconventional structure. Rather than proceeding chronologically and having the sinking occur over the last one or two episodes, the first three episodes each start before the Titanic sails and end during the sinking, trying to follow different characters each time round. (The concluding episode starts on 14th April and devotes most of its running time to the sinking.) Unfortunately, this approach does not work, at all.
Each episode tries to focus on particular characters, but ends up throwing others in too, creating an incoherent mess. Plot points lose their impact or may be forgotten altogether by the time they become relevant again: when Mrs Batley is criticising her husband for grovelling to his employer in Episode 2, it’s harder to care when we only saw them all having tea together back in Episode 1. A non-chronological approach can be used to teach us things about characters, creating intrigue and showing curious developments where the explanatory gaps are filled in later – here, it’s too all-over-the-place to be intriguing or teach the audience anything. There is no purpose to having a few encounters between Annie and her love interest Paolo in the first two episodes, and saving their first chronological meeting for Episode 3. And by the time we get to that third episode, several scenes are just being repeated from previous episodes. Even if the various dramatic subplots were fresh and interesting – which they aren’t – the structure would leave us unable to appreciate them.
The tagline for this series, in adverts and on the DVD cover, is “The Truth Will Surface”: I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, particularly as rather than being truthful, this is another production with many historical inaccuracies. People escape in the wrong lifeboats, at the wrong times, on the wrong sides of the ship: Molly Brown and the Countess of Rothes end up in the same boat, for instance. Harry Widener – a real person, who died in the sinking – is given a fictional romance with Lady Georgiana. For his research, Fellowes apparently took some Titanic myths at face value, including ones that do a disservice to real people: for example, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon explicitly bribes the crewmen in his lifeboat not to return for survivors in the water – in real life, he offered them a fiver each to buy a new kit, and it was debated afterwards whether it was meant as a subtle bribe or just a gift. We also see an officer declaring that only first-class ladies are allowed in his lifeboat, and Italian crew members being locked in a room and left to drown: there is no evidence for either of these actually occurring.
There are a few positive details worth mentioning. Scenes in the third-class areas give a proper appreciation of a ship’s cramped interior. The production is a bit less colourful than Cameron’s film, and has a reserved atmosphere which does at least fit with the low-key stories; despite this, the visual effects used for exterior shots of the Titanic are pleasing. There’s a proper sense of time pressure as the lifeboats are lowered; and the Titanic’s split and final plunge look good, with appropriate sound effects and no music. The concluding scenes after the sinking are not so good, however: there’s no sense of anybody being especially cold, and hardly anyone is seen floating in the water when a lifeboat goes back to look – a far cry from the sea choked with bodies in Cameron’s film.
This Titanic miniseries is a bland, disappointing mess, with misguided effort in some areas and not enough effort at all in others. Definitely skip it.