Monday, April 16, 2012

Why all the hate for the Julian Fellowes "Titanic"?

I was riveted this weekend with the 4-part miniseries "Titanic" that aired on ABC.  I approached it with skepticism due to lukewarm reviews and news that ratings for the miniseries in the UK (where most of it had already aired in the past few weeks) had declined continuously after the first episode.  I thought I was only going to be mildly interested, but within minutes I was sucked into the drama!  I have been surprised at the chilly-to-downright-hostile reaction this miniseries has received from the public.  It's an intelligently written and acted drama that ranks well with the classic network-TV miniseries of the 1970s and 1980s, truly a lost art form.  I enjoyed how Fellowes plays with our expectations of retelling the story by laying out familiar elements, and then turns everything upside down by taking us down a completely different path!  In what could be considered the disaster-version of the underrated TV drama "Boomtown," each episode of "Titanic" takes us back to the beginning of the story before the ship even sets sail, and focuses on an entirely new set of characters, who we had only glimpsed earlier, and tells the story from their perspective.  Scenes we had witnessed earlier are replayed, but from a different perspective with a new nuance and meaning to be discerned from it.  The net effect allows us to realize that none of the characters in the background are just "extras," because their stories will come to the forefront later.

The opening segment focuses much of its attention on the Earl and Lady of Manton (Linus Roache and the unsympathetic Geraldine Somerville--a chilly actress who exudes as much sex appeal as you would expect from someone with that name) and their annoying daughter, Lady Georgiana (Perdita Weeks).  I started off thinking that Lady Georgiana would end up being the centerpiece of the whole miniseries, as her character was vaguely reminiscent of Kate Winslet's Rose in the famous James Cameron telling of this story.  But, by the second episode, the story of the Manton's retreated into the background and we found ourselves enmeshed in the other, more interesting passengers aboard the ship.  I was much more taken with the unrealized love between the Manton's servants Barnes (Lee Ross) and Mabel Watson (Lyndsey Marshal).  The subplot where Barnes attempts to redeem himself after he has ruined Mabel's copy of "Aesop's Fables" (after he snatched it from her teasingly) takes on surprising levels of depth and feeling later on.  I have never seen Ross or Marshal before, but they commanded the screen with great confidence and feeling and I look forward to following their careers in the future.

But best of all is Jenna-Louise Coleman's radiant performance as second-class stewardess Annie Desmond.  In later episodes, Annie's character comes into greater prominence and eclipse's Lady Georgiana to become the miniseries's actual romantic heroine.  Unlike Lady Georgiana's fake progressive activism (we first encounter her in jail after she has been arrested for protesting for suffrage rights in the UK), Coleman's Annie Desmond truly represents the future of English womanhood.  With her cockney accent, warmth, intelligence, heart, courage, and can-do attitude, she represents the sort of young woman who will likely rise to the occasion and volunteer for leadership roles as the 20th Century progresses and her nation faces two impending world wars in the decades to come.  Her intelligence, wit, and sensitivity is reminiscent of the servant maids played by Kelly Macdonald and Emily Watson in the Fellowes-scripted "Gosford Park" (2001), not coincidentally my favorite characters from that film.  Coleman is a real find--when she appeared on-screen I said to myself "Ah, a star is born!"--and I rooted for her character to survive.

Coleman isn't alone in the miniseries--Fellowes allows many of his female characters moments to shine.  He doesn't just put all his eggs in one basket the way James Cameron did with Kate Winslet in his Titanic movie.  Silent film star Dorothy Gibson (Sophie Winkleman) and Benjamin Guggenheim's French mistress Madame Aubart (Josephine de la Baume) are depicted as feisty women who had the courage to thumb their noses at the British class system on board that seeks to put them in their place.  Aubart even gets my favorite line in the whole miniseries.  After she has been insulted by the shallow Lady Manton (the one irredeemable woman in the story), Aubart dismisses the slight by wryly commenting, "No one is more morally indignant than a beauty on the wrong side of 40."  I particularly liked the sequence, after the ship has gone down, where Molly Brown and other women aboard the lifeboat stage a mini-mutiny by disobeying the the cowardly seaman who refuses to go back to look for survivors.  Fellowes at least plays fair with Molly Brown, who lives up to her feisty reputation in this version of the story, not the toothless counterpart that Cameron depicted in his film who lets herself gets shouted down by others on the lifeboat when she insists on going back for survivors.  Fellowes generally shares the courage equally among his women, rather than limiting it to just one woman as in the Cameron version.  That in itself gives this version of the "Titanic" tragedy enough of an edge to distinguish itself from the many interpretations of this story.

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