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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Titanic (review)

History Lessons

Titanic (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading this instant and run out to the multiplex. Titanic is simply a great film — and by “great,” I don’t mean “very good.” I mean “great” as in “epic and profound.”

If ever a movie had the potential for overblown melodrama, this is the one. James Cameron, a director not particularly known for subtlety, has drawn delicate, restrained performances from his entire cast — working from his own script — and has shot them elegantly on what are perhaps the grandest movie sets ever built. And he’s created suspense in the ultimate the-butler-did-it story — we get so caught up in the genuine chemistry between DiCaprio’s poor-boy Jack and Winslet’s society-girl Rose that when the ship hits that iceberg, it comes as a shock.

The film is full of delightful surprises. Characters are never quite what they seem. Bill Paxton’s salvager — in the contemporary framing story — is never as piratical as his rakish gold earring seems meant to suggest. Ruth, Rose’s mother, allows us a brief glimpse into her motives, and suddenly she’s not the unsympathetic bitch we think she is at first. And Cal — Rose’s snooty, rich, cold fiancé — might he actually love Rose, in his own warped way, and not see her as merely an acquisition?

The ship itself is a character with a very palpable presence. Its dining rooms and salons are stunning, of course, but the first look Cameron gives us of its sweaty, steaming engine rooms, enormous pistons pumping away as an army of men stokes its boilers, sent chills through me and brought tears to my eyes. This Titanic is a great beast swelling with as much pride as its keepers, and it’s as alive to us as it is to the master ship builder (the wonderful Victor Garber) — one of the film’s most touching moments is his final good-bye to his dying ship.

What makes this the brilliant work that it is, however, is the framing story that brings 101-year-old Rose out to the wreck of the Titanic. We forget that history happened to real people — even in the best, most moving historical dramas, events seem distant and unreal. But Cameron introduces us to Rose today — in the world we all know, and know is real — and lets us meet the woman she blossomed into because she met Jack on the Titanic and they went down with it together. Without preaching, without even stating it, Cameron makes us remember that history was just people living their lives, in a continual flow that didn’t stop (depending on which generation you’re of) in 1918 or 1945 or 1969 but reaches to us today — that we simultaneously create history and are drawn along in its wake toward the future. And that even more paradoxically, all this pondering on the past grounds us firmly in the world that is here and now.

I bawled my eyes out over Titanic — in fact, I’m doing it again as I write this — not so much for Jack and Rose as for myself, reminded of the certainty that one day, if I’m lucky, I’ll be history. If I’m not lucky, I’ll just be gone.

[my second look at Titanic]
[my third look at Titanic, after its Oscar win for Best Picture]
[Titanic 3D review, 2012 rerelease]

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Titanic (1997) | directed by James Cameron
US/Can release: Dec 19 1997
UK/Ire release: Jan 23 1998

MPAA: rated PG-13 for disaster related peril and violence, nudity, sensuality and brief language
BBFC: rated 12A (contains strong language, nudity, intense threat and disturbing images)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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