Just a week and a half after the series ran on ABC to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking, Julian Fellowes’ (Downton Abbey, Gosford Park) take on the 1912 disaster has come to Blu-ray and DVD. While comparisons are bound to happen between it and the numerous other Titanic movies, most notably A Night to Remember and James Cameron’s big-budget epic, Fellowes decided to stick mostly to character drama of multiple people and families on board, and not as much on the logistics of the disaster.
The four part series lasts just over three hours total, and parallels Fellowes’ Downton Abbey universe; the similarities to his other series are everywhere. Episode one launches right in with little back story, and the whole thing is chock-full of classist comparisons between the wealthy and the servants/steerage passengers. Fellowes excels at showing the heart and soul of both sides in a caring, but oftentimes humorous way, and his unique style continues throughout all four episodes.
You’ve got the steerage class who are dreaming of a new better life in America, as well as the oftentimes-ridiculous wealthy, who have no problem being served by an Italian if it’s in the on-board Italian restaurant, but watch out if the same waiter tries to serve you in the first class dining room. As standard as these stereotypes may seem, stay tuned for the next episodes, where you might have a completely different opinion of each. Sometimes it takes catastrophe or danger to show a person’s true colors.
Episode one plays out pretty quickly, and thirty minutes in the RMS Titanic is already fast on it’s way to sinking. We spend most of our time following the elite family of Hugh, Earl of Manton, his completely atrocious wife, and their rebellious daughter (this Titanic’s Rose?). They hobnob with other wealthy people, snub the “new money,” and laugh at the expense of the ghastly second-class passengers. Other characters are introduced and then exit just as fast and it all seems very rushed. It truly makes you wonder how there’s three episodes more to go, but as Guggenheim quotes as he’s sipping a drink with danger all around him, “Too much rushing about. I prefer to wait and see what happens.”
You’ll be glad you stuck around and waited for the second episode if you do so. Rather than a cookie-cutter Cameron reboot that is forced into forty-five short minutes, we go back in time again to see the story from another perspective. The characters are fleshed-out more, and given a better back story, and we get to see a lot of the ironic harbingers of the fateful Atlantic crossing, such as cutting corners with fewer lifeboats, and misplacing binoculars. It also brings up the Irish struggle between Protestants and Catholics as we follow the Maloney family with their six kids in steerage, and see a few mysteries start to surface about missing jewels, wanted anarchists, and illicit affairs.
Like Downton, you don’t really start caring for the characters until the second or third episodes, but by three, you are (or I was) completely hooked. We get to see the first true romance you’ll care about between the Italian waiter Paolo, and the British housemaid, Annie. Also, we get some further clarification about the anarchist on board, with a story which (quickly) follows Winston Churchill searching for “Peter the Painter” at the Siege of Sidney Street.
By the time episode four has happened, the characters are all so woven together and well-written, that the drama really starts unfolding, making you care about the real people that the tragedy is happening to. While many historians and Titanic buffs will complain that there are many errors etc., Fellowes doesn’t seem to mind, and focuses instead on the people and how they react to disaster, rather than to the disaster or the ship itself. The four episodes did still seem a bit rushed with so many characters that could have interesting back stories, and I would have loved to see Fellowes take his time with about seven or eight total episodes to give it the space it needed.
The bonus features on the Blu-ray include six “making of” featurettes that will help to whet the appetites of the historians in the crowd. A really cool time-lapse video of the making of the set and ship itself is included, as well as dive footage and interviews with experts on the subject. Fellowes has a audio commentary on the first episode, and there is also an interesting documentary entitled “The Curse of the Titanic Sisters,” which looks at the sinking of the sister ship, the Britannic, as well as the curious happenings that occurred on the Olympic, and purports that the unusual circumstances of all three White Star Liners may have been linked.