The Big Wet One

The romantic scenes in Titanic are extravagantly affecting, and this is a tribute not only to Cameron but to his costars. When we see Jack and Rose tightly embracing on the ship's prow as the ship sweeps grandly through the ocean, it recalls the scene in Superman in which the Man of Steel flies with Lois Lane through Manhattan's night sky. Sequences such as these are experienced by audiences as a collective swoon. They're schlock raised to the level of schlock poetry, and sometimes that's more boffo than the real thing.

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 (1989), which was partly inspired by the first videos taken at the site of the sunken Titanic, there's a sequence in which Ed Harris attempts to revive a drowned Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio that is almost frighteningly rapturous. That's the same effect Cameron is trying for in Titanic, a movie in which the rapture comes from the beauty and innocence of its lovers and the fright 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 virtuous poor. DiCaprio has just the right temperature for this film: If he were swarthier, he'd be competing with the ship; if he were more 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; it's not until her Rose 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 on an Edwardian cameo. 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-size Titanic replica sitting in a tank of 17,000,000 gallons of seawater, plus gazillions of special effects. DiCaprio and Winslet provide the human touch -- and the ethereal touch -- needed 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 chock-a-block with subplots and supporting players; The Poseidon Adventure (1972), for example, was practically a variety show for every B-list actor in Hollywood. Titanic, by contrast, is almost eerily devoid 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, never outlining 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 story's framing device 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 80-something Gloria Stuart, who acted with the Marx Brothers and Jimmy Cagney). But these salvage sequences were filmed amid 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 has been resurrected before our eyes -- or has never really gone away. And Stuart's luminous ancient beauty matches exactly what Walter Lord wrote of the ship's 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 powerful ersatz experience, but at least it is powerful. There's a lot to like here. At three hours and fourteen minutes, the film takes longer to watch than the Titanic took to sink.

Written and directed by James Cameron; with Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, David Warner, and Billy Zane.

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