A long night to remember Titanic: This shipwreck of a flick, at just over three hours, could do without 100 minutes, according to a moviegoer who says he was left with a cold, sinking feeling.

January 04, 1998|By Michael Pakenham

Relaxing from the sweet excitements of Christmas day, we went to an evening movie. It went on for three hours and 12 minutes.

The plot is simple: A gem-seeking underwater exploration crew hauls up a safe containing a drawing of a beautiful, naked young woman, but no jewels, from a stateroom aboard the Titanic. A television news report interrupts a 101-year-old woman named Rose Calvert as she works wet clay on her potter's wheel. She recognizes herself as the model for the drawing and picks up the phone. She is helicoptered to the search ship, where she tells a tale. That becomes the narrative of a love story, entirely a fiction, and a shipwreck, which is historifact.

The love story is set against 17-year-old Rose's suffocating, high society engagement, from which she flees to the arms of Jack Dawson, a 20-year-old penniless itinerant artist who struggled into steerage class by being slick at poker. Almost two hours are devoted to life amid the opulence of the famously unsinkable ship, the largest luxury liner ever, on its maiden voyage. Then it collides with an iceberg in the North Atlantic - which actually happened the night of April 15, 1912. It sinks, taking 1,517 passengers and crew members to their deaths, while 700 escape in all too few lifeboats.

The end of the film returns to the narrative present and sinks like, well, a gutted luxury liner.

So what's wrong?

The thing is vastly too long. Simple editing could easily have taken its three hours down to the standard 90 minutes, gaining much in pace and credibility.

Everything is overdone. Everything. Everything! Everything!! Example: As the ship cracks in the middle and up-ends, people grasp, lose hold and fall, their bodies ricocheting against hard objects with hideous thumps and wails. After the third of these, ++ with about 150 to come, that initially dramatic gig turns into a pinball effect, though rather more comic.

The sea, a major character in both parallel dramas, is never menacing, powerful, unpredictable. The weather was calm, sure, but the movie's sea is slick as eel spit, even as the Great Ship Goes Down. Cold, oh, goodness gracious, yes - we see ice in poor Rose's hair as she is rescued. But somehow Earth's mightiest nemesis spends three hours and 12 minutes behaving mostly like the contents of an over-filled bathtub.

The plot is completely predictable, a relentless tear-jerker.

The special effects fall limp and dreary from overdoing and prop pride.

There is more. Begin with the beginning:

The high-tech, undersea bounty-seekers are presented as so vulgar, so shallow of motive (rancid greed) as to make one yearn for the rich intellectual and moral companionship of, say, Donald Trump. Or perhaps Willie Sutton.

Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) is presented as a working-class romantic waif. Yet from his initial entry, his characterization suggests a youth who, temporarily jaded by fox hunting and cataloging his great-grandfather's collection of Old Master drawings, has set out on a lark to examine and ape the lives of the masses. He is so infinitely prettier than the girl, and the camera was so enamored of his visage, that a half-dozen times in the course of the thing I thought we might be given some sort of Victoria/Victor treat, a gender role reversal, as a counterpoint.

Rose Calvert (Kate Winslet) looks and plays the part as if she had recently been recruited by Henry Higgins to be made over into a second-generation Eliza Doolittle. At age 17, as she is supposed to be, she is superhumanly sophisticated in matters of Modernist Painting and Sigmund Freud, while genuinely coarse in manner and mien.

Rose continually seems out of costume in ball gowns; Jack is at his born-to-it natural best in borrowed white tie and tail coat.

Rose's mother (Frances Fisher) is played convincingly - or would have been had she been cast not as the girl's mother but as a governess. A governess of the kind that, pornography suggests, enriches the fantasy lives of that small tribe of unfortunates whose greatest joys are being whipped - humiliatingly - by dour professional disciplinarians. Cast as mother, she demonstrates every domineering quality imaginable, save motherhood.

The single redeeming performance is that of Gloria Stuart, who plays Rose at 101 years. She is entirely magnificent.

In a sea of implausibility,

Stuart's performance glows with relative splendor. But she is given absolutely impossible tricks to perform. The worst is a final scene of chucking overboard an immense diamond. Ah, we understand! She had had this massive bauble, the focus of the greed-driven undersea exploration that fueled the plot, tucked away all these years.

Dropping tens of millions of dollars into the Big Puddle as a gesture of being above material concern? Ah, c'mon! Any lovely, civilized lady who is still throwing artsy pots would cash in the rock to endow a potting school or some such retreat. With age comes wisdom, sometimes; James Cameron, the movie's writer, director, editor and producer, is 43.

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