Schlock Poetry

Don't come looking for subtlety, but Titanic is a great big, romantic cornball success

It's popular to call Cameron an action-hardware auteur, but he's always had a ripe, almost fervid romantic streak. In his underwater epic The Abyss, which was partly inspired by the first movies brought back from the ocean floor of the sunken Titanic, there's a sequence in which Ed Harris attempts to revive a drowned Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio that's almost frighteningly rapturous. That's the same effect he's trying for in Titanic, a movie in which the rapture comes from the beauty and innocence of its lovers and the fright comes from what we know must befall them. The huge doom awaiting them gives their love an operatic poignancy.

DiCaprio has an intuitive grace before the camera -- he would have been marvelous in silent films -- and the high polish of his features makes him seem anointed. Jack is a romantic's vision of working-class youth, and you accept his supremacy as the natural order of things. He gives flesh to this sentimental fantasy of the bright and shining poor. DiCaprio has just the right temperature for this film: If he were swarthier he'd be competing with the ship, and if he were fey he'd disappear. He never lets the Titanic get the better of him, and, considering its size, that's saying something.

Winslet at first seems stocky and unconvincing opposite DiCaprio. She's playing the sleeping beauty who needs to be awakened by the prole prince's kiss, but it's not until she returns his ardor that Winslet really shines. In her initial scenes with the first-class crowd, her snooty society mannerisms seem actressy; but alone with DiCaprio, skimming the winds or locked in icy waters, she matches his resplendent charm. Her features become softer -- she's like a maiden in a cameo from an Edwardian locket. On-screen, DiCaprio and Winslet have the kind of innocence that can't be faked. This is a behemoth of a movie, with its near-actual-sized Titanic replica sitting in a tank of 17 million gallons of seawater, and gazillions of special effects. DiCaprio and Winslet provide the human touch -- and the ethereal touch -- to keep the whole shebang afloat.

It's a good thing, too, since Jack and Rose are just about the only featured characters in the movie. Cameron doesn't have a very layered imagination. Usually these shipboard dramas are chockablock with subplots and supporting players; The Poseidon Adventure, for example, was practically a variety show for every B-list actor in Hollywood. Titanic, by contrast, is almost eerily empty of incidentals; just about everything that happens is keyed to the lovers' romantic predicament. Kathy Bates has a funny turn as the sashaying, new-moneyed "Unsinkable" Molly Brown -- she calls out to John Jacob Astor by yelling, "Hey Astor!" -- and David Warner is creepy as Cal's lethal manservant. But Cameron cares only about his lovebirds; he may be working on a humongous scale, but essentially he's a miniaturist here. He doesn't even play up the suspense of how the Titanic might have been saved; he doesn't outline the circumstances -- the unheeded radio dispatches, or the push by the ship company's managing director to break an Atlantic-crossing speed record -- that contributed to its destruction. He accepts the entire catastrophe as a piece of romantic fatalism.

Until the end, even the framing device Cameron introduces seems secondary: A fortune-hunting salvager played by Bill Paxton attempts to bring up from the Titanic wreck a fabled diamond, the "Heart of the Ocean," which, we soon discover, may have belonged to a survivor, the 102-year-old Rose (played by Gloria Stuart, in her 80s, who acted with the Marx Brothers and Jimmy Cagney). But these salvage sequences were filmed in actual Titanic wreckage, and they have a documentary power that goes beyond the make-believe. We look at a chandelier floating in the fathoms, or the remains of a stateroom, and it's as if an old, sad story had been resurrected before our eyes -- or had never really gone away. And Stuart's luminous ancient beauty matches exactly what Walter Lord wrote of the survivors in his 1955 book A Night to Remember: "It is almost as though, having come through this supreme ordeal, they easily surmounted everything else and are now growing old with calm, tranquil grace."

Great film artists from D.W. Griffith on have often been drawn to the colossal. But in modern-day Hollywood, the logistics and the commercial concessions involved in making a super-spectacle just about preclude any sustained artistry. Titanic is far from a work of art, but it may be the best we can expect now from the studios in their continuing, insane game of my-budget-is-bigger-than-yours. It's a powerfully ersatz experience, but at least it's powerful. There's a lot to like here: At three hours and 17 minutes, the film takes longer to watch than the Titanic took to sink.

Directed by James Cameron. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates.

Rated PG-13.
197 minutes.

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