What a miraculous film. So grandiose, large and full of human storytelling!

Titanic is a story of self-reflection. It's also a thriller, a romance and a stunning disaster movie all in one. And unlike other attempts at humanising massive tragedy, using broad themes, such as Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor, the film works because its respective elements are broad, glorious and delivered with genuine style and vigour.

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It opens with grainy, sepia-toned images of the liner, launching on its maiden voyage, and as the famous theme is sung, the stark beauty of the ship inspires a sense of romance.

The underwater prologue is a series of shots for cognitive recognition later on, accompanied by faint party music from the ship's deck windows, sounds of engine noise and so on. Notice the early sequence of the old lady peering into the preserved charcoal drawing of herself, the water rippling and distorting her face. This shot is an effective paradigm for the spectator, as history becomes clearer as the story settles - the 84-year-old drawing distorted, the recovered mirror from her room reflecting the past and the hair comb used before the drawing was made.

It is to writer/director James Cameron's credit that we end up forgetting, if only for the length of the story, that Titanic is inevitably doomed. Her majesty is faithfully recreated, using incredible deep-sea photography, cross-edited against jaw-dropping recreations of the vessel herself. Note as the older Rose relays the story to the audience, the camera pushes in towards the bow of the wreck, then dissolves back 84 years to a perfectly match-moved version of the 1914 launch from Liverpool. Much of the screenplay is also a masterwork of structure, if not style. Each scene skilfully flows into the next, so that three hours fly by without a hitch.

The sinking is well explained by a clever piece of computer reconstruction, created by a splendidly insensitive geek. It's the old Hitchcock technique of showing that there's a bomb under the table, but you don't know when it will explode, although you know what will happen. Suspense is built carefully and the bomb is occasionally forgotten as the characters and story pull you in.

Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio, ideally cast and echoing a wholesome young James Dean) wins tickets to go back to America on Titanic. Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) is a girl from a wealthy background, who feels that she has lost control of her life and is being forced to marry a "suitable", older man (a gleefully 1.5 dimensional Billy Zane), who believes money solves all life's problems.

Jack falls for Rose immediately and eventually meets her in a careful scene where she wants to end it all by jumping off the ship. Their love story is between a 17-year-old girl and a 19-year-old boy. Not two adults. DiCaprio and Winslet are absolutely convincing and terrific in their roles and convey the feeling of love's young dream perfectly.

Rose is a girl who finds herself trapped by the "inertia of my life" and wishes to rebel. She admires the freedom of Jack, who, while at dinner with the first-class passengers, explains the philosophy of his existence, "to make each day count". He borrows clothes from the Unsinkable Molly Brown (a memorably zesty Kathy Bates, who notes that he "shines up like a new penny"), waits for Rose at the stairwell and learns to act like a gentleman. It's a small pantomime of acting, learning the mannerisms from the other diners, and DiCaprio is clearly having fun.

Cameron shows restraint, in that Jack and Rose only consummate their love for one another with a kiss more than 70 minutes in. It's a lovely set up, where the depressed Rose has been forbidden to "see that boy again", while watching a young girl at another table being taught the "proper" way to prepare for a meal. Realising that she is destined to be incarcerated in this symbolic prison of properness, she rushes out and finds Jack at the bow of the ship. And the rest is film history...

Through Jack, she discovers her potential for the first time. He saves her, not only from an impetuous act of self-destruction, but in "all the ways a person can be saved". She makes her first genuine pro-active choice in the scene below decks where they make love in the car. Jack pretends to drive, and cheerfully asks, "Where to, Miss?" She grabs him playfully, whispers "To the stars," and powerfully pulls him back through the window. She is in control and we, as the audience, are exhilarated for her!

It's impossible to make a film about Titanic without touching on human loss, and the film hits hard. The moment when the musicians play Nearer My God To Thee, there's an incredibly touching montage of people fighting, praying, or preparing for icy death. The sight of the lover's bow falling beneath the sea, with appropriately deep bass sounds, as the steel compresses and expands far beyond it's designed limits, inspires genuine chills. Cameron's fascination with marine technology is truly noteworthy, as in the prologue's astounding deep-sea dives, mixture of invisible model shots and the ship's piston room full of machinery six storeys high.

It's easy to criticise Titanic with its simple characters and story; It wears its heart on its sleeve, with pride, and delivers exactly what it promises - a startlingly realised film, an extravaganza for the eyes, ears and the heart. It's also a well-conceived muse against the nature of destiny. Do we rage against the dying of the light? Or do we accept fate on our own voyage?

Reviewed on: 08 Nov 2005
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An epic disaster movie, with added passion and icebergs. Re-released in 3D.
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Angus Wolfe Murray ****1/2

Director: James Cameron

Writer: James Cameron

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill, David Warner, Victor Garber, Jonathan Hyde

Year: 1997

Runtime: 195 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

Bradford 2007

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