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'Titanic's' Very Slow Leak

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 19, 1997

  Movie Critic

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio fall in love on the doomed "Titanic." (Paramount)

James Cameron
Leonardo DiCaprio;
Kate Winslet;
Billy Zane;
Gloria Stuart;
Kathy Bates;
Frances Fisher;
Bernard Hill;
Jonathan Hyde;
Danny Nucci;
David Warner;
Bill Paxton;
Suzy Amis
Running Time:
3 hours, 15 minutes
For nudity, profanity, claustrophobic intensity, sexual situations and minor violence
Best Picture; Director; Cinematography; Editing; Costume; Visual Effects; Sound Effects; Original Song ("My Heart Will Go On"); Sound; Score; Art Direction
You could stay awake till the wee hours extolling the extraordinary stunts, cinematography, production design and special effects of "Titanic." James Cameron's $200 million epic about the doomed ocean liner is easily the most visually stunning experience of the year. Of course, it should be. It's the most expensive production in movie history, and it had the demonically energetic Cameron at the helm. There's little doubt "Titanic" will soak up Oscar nominations for everything from sound editing to its Edwardian-era wardrobe.

With breathtaking detail, the movie documents the 880-foot, 60,000-ton RMS Titanic's tragic fate between April 10 and April 15, 1912, on its voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. When it struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m., April 14, the most luxurious, dependable mode of transportation – the Concorde of its time – became a byword in disaster lore.

Beyond its impressive production values, "Titanic" is primarily a romance between 17-year-old passenger Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a member of high society, and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), an artistic drifter who has finagled passage to America by winning a third-class ticket at a dockside poker game.

She's fated for a stultifying, leisured life with priggish fiance Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Jack lives the existence of the free spirit but has no one to share it with. When the tousled artist talks the disconsolate Rose out of leaping into the ocean, their inevitable coupling begins.

Their affair is prefaced nicely by a framing story in the present day. Eighty-four years after the tragedy, a beautiful, aged woman (Gloria Stuart) hears about a search for an expensive diamond necklace (the biggest in the world) from the wreckage of the Titanic. The clue to the gem: a drawing discovered in a locked safe of a beautiful woman, naked, with the necklace around her neck. The woman in the picture, she tells expedition leader Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), is none other than herself. As Brock and his open-mouthed crew listen, Rose takes them – and us – back in time ...

After this magnificent setup, the movie springs an indiscernible but steady leak. DiCaprio and Winslet make a good-hair, great-body couple. And neither is an acting slouch. But their story – though meticulously linked with the greater disaster – is only passably involving. (And the less said about Zane's pantomimically nefarious, gun-toting assistant, played by David Warner, the better.) The fanciful, choked-throat bliss the lovebirds are supposed to evoke dissipates in the heat of Cameron's manic passion for the Titanic itself.

The director of "Aliens," "The Abyss," both "Terminator" movies and "True Lies," captures the opulence, the sense of human folly and a sort of Dante-like sense of damnation, as sweaty engineers labor in the Titanic's boiler and engine room. But Cameron, who also wrote the script, is too schematic about the romance.

When Jack steals Rose away to the economy-rate Steerage Public Room, he introduces her to a goofily life- affirm ative world, where chiefly Irish emigrants dance, sing and jovially spill beer all over each other. (Do the working classes know how unpretentious, happy and grimily noble they're supposed to be? I don't think so.) Jack also shows Rose how to spit a good one into the ocean. Now that's liberation. Garth and Wayne, white courtesy phone please.

Jack's artsy, carefree life is too easy an alternative to the corset-tightening future offered by Cal. Who'd want the stuffiest cardboard-cutout figure ever scissored into shape by a screenwriter? Where's the romantic competition? Are we to believe Jack's an artist simply because he admires Monet? ("Look at his use of color," he says.) And was Cameron intending to make things humorous when Jack says "This is bad," upon learning of the Titanic's impending destruction?

Finally, and most tellingly, the movie's too long. Who wrote the 11th Commandment that says epics should go on forever? "Titanic" is a good, often stunning movie caught in a three-and-a-half hour drift. As we marvel at the physical spectacle of the Titanic's last few hours, we're left staggeringly untouched by the people facing their last moments. This movie should have blown us out of the water. Instead we catch ourselves occasionally thinking the unpardonable thought: "OK, sink already."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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