Review: In grand design, small detail, film captures the style of an era without losing sight of the very human stories that make a movie great.


December 19, 1997|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Has anyone not heard that "Titanic" is the most expensive movie ever made? Is there a citizen at large who doesn't know of the problems that bedeviled its production, from director James Cameron's explosive temper to the PCP-laced lobster chowder? Anyone out there remember that the two studios behind "Titanic," 20th Century Fox and Paramount, almost came to blows last summer while deciding when to release the film?

Well, forget it all. "Titanic," a three-hour, wide-screen historical romantic epic, steams over its advance hype, leaving the tatters of gossip columns and inside reports in its prodigious wake.

Lavishly detailed and breathtaking in scope, "Titanic" beckons filmgoers into a bygone time -- not 1912, when the great ship made her tragic maiden voyage, but a time when going to the movies meant being dazzled and seduced and awed by their sheer magnitude and meaning.

This is the secret of James Cameron's considerable success. The director of the "Terminator" films, "Aliens" and "True Lies" has always had a knack for breaking budget records, but he's always made the money back, in large part because he never sacrificed story for spectacle. And this is the chief strength of "Titanic," which tells the story of the legendary sea disaster through the relationship of two young people on the ship.

Rose (Kate Winslet) is a young aristocrat unhappily engaged to a society snob (Billy Zane). When she meets Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), who won his cruise ticket in a poker game, she sees a different future, in which she can indulge her passion for modern art, quote Freud, learn how to spit and ride a horse Western-style.

When Jack takes her to a party below-decks, Rose comes into her own, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and dancing a sweaty jig with the Irish and Italians cramped together there. The scene moves the romance forward, but it's also a foreshadowing: The same steerage passengers Rose befriends would hours later be locked into the hold, while first- and second-class passengers made their way to the lifeboats.

Rose and Jack are portrayed with enough spirit by Winslet and DiCaprio to keep the audience rapt on their budding love story. And that story is compelling enough to fulfill one of its chief purposes, to give filmgoers an intimate sense of the scale and style of the 882-foot ship. By the time it hits the North Atlantic iceberg -- almost two hours into the 3-hour, 15-minute movie -- filmgoers are familiar enough with the ship's layout to know what's happening when it goes down.

Cameron's attention to visual logic is but one of his talents that make him particularly suited to a project as colossal as "Titanic." He also has an obsessive eye for detail -- he reproduced the ship to 90 percent scale and copied its appointments down to the last door-pull and mantel box.

With uncommon grace, he allows the audience to consider the Titanic in all its proportions: Pulling back for the breathtaking long shot, he presents the ship as a behemoth of almost incomprehensible size, a placid monster that reduced its 2,228 passengers to scurrying insects.

Closer in, he focuses on the revealing details that comprise a gilded portrait of exquisite, superfluous luxury. Shots of trinkets sliding off table tops and china tumbling from its cabinet were seen in the 1958 Titanic film "A Night to Remember," but Cameron contextualizes them to a greater degree: These aren't just indicators of the ship's pitch. They're the festishes of a disappearing social order.

In the film's central roles, Winslet is especially winning as the headstrong Rose; like so many actors of his generation, DiCaprio's delivery has an anachronistic contemporary ring to it, but he keeps focus and energy throughout.

In fact, the best parts of "Titanic" are actually two supporting players: Kathy Bates is suitably ebullient as the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown, the nouveau riche heroine who survived the sinking. And Gloria Stuart provides a wholly unexpected gravitational power as the present-day Rose, who at 101 relates her story to a deep-sea explorer played by Bill Paxton.

Rather than relegate Stuart's scenes and narration to the margins of "Titanic," Cameron weaves them into the warp and woof of the film, thus ensuring that the spectacular effects never overwhelm the human story. When Stuart recalls that "the china had never been used. The sheets had never been slept in," her voice rings with amazement and loss.

With a steady hand and a human touch, Cameron gives "Titanic" heart and soul. He has confected a bath of delicious eye-candy, and more than 500 visual effects went into orchestrating the mother of all disaster sequences.

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