Titanic (1997) ***** – Seen at the Cinema in 3D Imax

You might have thought it the height of Hollywood hubris for James Cameron to assume Titanic could steal the Valentine’s Day crown from Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman World War Two lovelorn Casablanca (1942). But bear in mind Casablanca had replaced Doctor Zhivago (1965) as the movie’s greatest love story and that, in turn, had superseded Gone with the Wind (1939).

Each followed a similar recipe – cataclysmic event, except Casablanca epic in scope, except Gone with the Wind memorable song,  except Clark Gable introducing relative newcomers, perhaps most of all fabulous screen charisma between the male and female leads. Titanic, of course, has a late twentieth century vibe, more action than drama as the lovers, often pursued, hurtle from one potential disaster to another, and are within a lifejacket and a large enough piece of flotsam of a happy ending.

But where Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) exhibited world-weary cynicism and Zhivago (Omar Sharif), though his occupation, achieved maturity, Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) are little more than blossoms blown on the wind, as innocent as a fresh coat of paint. Jack grows up fast, fast enough to hold his own among the upper class, strong enough to whisk Rose away from a life of servitude to a male ideal.

In some respects, to use the modern idiom, she is the ultimate Final Girl. On several occasions, she rescues him, plunging through the rising torrent to find him and cleave his handcuffs with an axe. She risks far more than he. Vengeful fiancé Cal (Billy Zane) and his ruthless henchman (David Warner) would easily chuck Jack overboard given the chance.

In essence, the story is light. Spoiled brat saved from a half-hearted suicide attempt, Jack embraced by Cal as a means of humiliating him, various attempts to smear Jack, Rose finding a freedom below stairs she never expected, shown a world of opportunity beyond her ken, taking the lead in sexual matters, lightly mocking Jack for blushing at her nudity even as she shamelessly and confidently strips.

And told against the backdrop of a ruthless caste system, where only the “better” people can survive and millionaires see “winning” as the embodiment of entitlement. Cameron holds up a mirror to the supposedly classless America and a world of enterprise where lifeboats are viewed as an obstacle to beautiful design. The two outsiders, Rose’s mother (Frances Fisher) and Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) are opposites, the latter, by dint of inheritance pushing her way brusquely into society, the former meekly trading her daughter for a life of privilege.

And the romance is given a twist when cold-blooded Cal proves to be as obsessed by Rose as Jack, the several times offered safe passage turning it down to pursue her, and not in the end as an object to be collected but as the subject of his restrained passion.

But you would need extraordinary acting to keep you glued to the screen when there were so many other astonishing visuals and even at the distance of a quarter of a century the power of DiCaprio and Winslet just blows you away. Sure, there is a bit of will she-won’t she, but once we’re past that it’s romance as a breath of fresh air, DiCaprio mixes devil-may-care with adoration, Winslet bristles, succumbs and then takes the lead, the sheer exhilaration of it all the bulwark against the drama of the slowly sinking ship.

It’s a fabulous scenario, Cameron careful to allow other elements to float into place, the officers assuming sacrificial stance, the hunt for the mythical jewel that kicks off the tale and provides meaningful coda.

I’m sure it helped that DiCaprio and Winslet were mere rising stars, otherwise I doubt if someone with more box office clout would have stood for the endless hours/days/weeks in freezing cold water (I don’t think you could heat it up even in a studio setting) and without their genuine travails it would not have worked so well.

It’s worth noting that DiCaprio went on to become – along with Brad Pitt – the last of the genuine stars and that he forsook the easy route of romantic lead for more interesting and complex characters and embraced an association with Martin Scorsese that took him to darker places than the likes of Paul Newman or Harrison Ford ever dreamed. Winslet, too, has enjoyed a memorable career, perhaps entranced too often by the arthouse, but you can hardly argue with one Oscar and six nominations.

On a personal note, I realised I had passing acquaintance with two of the actors. When I worked backstage at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, I would often come across Jonathan Hyde (the arrogant Ismay). One role he played quite astonished me. Not so much the role (and I can’t remember what it was) but, if you like, the preamble. When audiences entered the theatre they were faced with the sight of Hyde sitting on stage in full costume and in character, as if this was Method Acting taken to an extreme, waiting for the play to begin.

I was at university with Ron Donachie (the master at arms). We both studied Drama at Glasgow University. This course was never intended to produce actors, and mostly it set students on a path to theatre management and the like, including a friend Anne Bonnar who went on to head up Creative Scotland. But, of course, it was always a route into acting if that was your ambition. Ron Donachie and another friend Duncan Bell (British television series Heartbeat) took the opportunity. Needless to say, my stint at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was enough to convince me that acting was not my forte.  

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Avatar: The Next Generation and the Rescue Marathon. Not sure about that, Jim, lacks punch. How about Avatar Meets Moby Dick? Hmm. You got a MacGuffin? Yep, the Earth is dying and the bad guys need to wipe out everyone on Pandora before they ship out the emigrants. And more Impossibilium? You’ll like this, this time we’re extracting anti-ageing serum from whales, worth $80 million a pop. And there’s also Avatar Meets The Titanic, seemed a shame to waste a ship going down.

So we don’t see as much of Sam Worthington this time round, is that right? Well, we’ve got to introduce his four kids, all approaching the rebellious stage, plus Spider, who’s maybe the son of the Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who was cloned before he died, plus the kids of the water king and of course all the kids squabble and make up and squabble again – you get the picture.

So how many rescues, exactly? To be honest I’ve lost count, but basically when A gets captured he needs rescued by B who then also gets captured and needs rescued by C who also gets captured and then…Yes, we get the picture.

Sigourney Weaver? Kate Winslet? Blink and you’ll miss them. But great for the marquee, right?

So, you see, with all these complications, you’re darned lucky I can manage to cram everything into a three-hour-plus running time.

Yep, it’s a bit of a mess, but the good news is while I might have been irritated by the narrative repetition I didn’t walk out. It certainly looks amazing. And you can’t top James Cameron for extended battle scenes. And there’s an emotional twist, starts out Jake protecting his family and ends up with his kids and wife saving him. Plus if you want woke, there’s a ton of Gaia-style philosophy.   

Ammonite (2020) ****

I came at this picture with some trepidation and in truth only watched it at the cinema because I had seen everything else worth a look in the few weeks since the picture houses have reopened. Although initially attracting Oscar buzz, that failed to materialize when it mattered and it was left out of the Oscar loop. While kate Winslet was a proven commercial box office draw, this appeared to have arthouse sensibilities and the few reviews I had read promised a turgid evening.

The reality was something different and as a result of what I can only describe as the magic of the big screen. Watching a film in a cinema is automatically more involving than on the small screen: there are fewer distractions, the dominating size of the screen is unavoidable and it is dark. Had I watched it at home I could well have switched it off after fifteen minutes in reaction to the slow pace. But in a cinema, slowness did not matter, and until it widened out in the final few scenes it was like an absorbing chamber piece, featuring a handful of characters.  In approach it was closest to a film about an artist, Pollock (2000) and Mr Turner (2014) come to mind, where obsession is the driving force, narrative and plot merely subservient. We are exposed to considerable detail about the character’s archaeological work, which is often filthy and undertaken outside in all sorts of weather, requiring the constitution of a miner or farmer rather than a painter, as well as the patience of a saint to brush, wash or poke clean her discoveries.

Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) was not an attractive personality, downright truculent and rude for the most part, given that she depended for her living on selling the archaeological items she had found in the Lyme Regis area to tourists and collectors. That her major archaeological discoveries resided in the British Museum brought no personal satisfaction because thanks to the male archaeological hierarchy they were presented there under the names of the purchasers rather than the finder. What she earned for major pieces could keep herself and her ageing and infirm mother (Gemma Jones) for a year. By and large, they lived in poverty, existing on soup mostly, the mother at least as obsessive as the daughter with her collection of knick-knacks, one for each of her eight children who had died prematurely, which she washed and polished every day. Mary spurned any male overtures and indeed appeared to resent any friendship, the hint of some kind of betrayal in brief scenes with Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), a local worthy.

Mary is hired by wannabe archaeologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) to look after his insipid, annoying, depressed wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Gradually a friendship forms, leading to desire. Nothing is more illustrative of the Victorian attitude to sex than that the idea of a lesbian relationship ran counter to all imagination. Perhaps one of the more refreshing aspects of the picture is that while Victorian women clearly resented having sex with their husbands that was largely down to the fact the men had no idea how to satisfy a woman. That is not the case here and though the sex scenes have been criticised in places as “too strong” I thought it was essential just to be sure that the women did know what they were doing and clearly derived enormous satisfaction from the sexual act if properly performed. A chaste kiss and cuddle would hardly do justice to the passion suddenly erupted.

While Mary experiences jealousy when Charlotte is entranced by Elizabeth, romance does not produce complete fulfilment and when Charlotte, as if she were a man, appoints herself Mary’s protector that independence for which the archaeologist had fought so hard is imperilled. Love miraculously changes Charlotte’s outward demeanour, the same is not true of Mary.

This isn’t the picture-postcard version of a Victorian seaside town, rather its harsher cousin. Writer-director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country, 2017) refuses to soften the rude edges of life and the best a true romanticist can expect is that the storms occasionally abate and the surf does not pound so heavily.

Powerful roles have been in short supply of late for Kate Winslet (Blackbird, 2019) and she is superb as the stoic woman in a male-dominated world, unable to express passion except in whittling away at pieces of ammonite. Saoirse Ronan (Little Woman, 2019) moves from bitter and confused child-woman to finding joy and from then to taking charge. Veteran British character actors Gemma Jones (Rocketman, 2019) and Fiona Shaw (My Left Foot, 1989) are impressive while James McArdle (Mary, Queen of Scots, 2018) and Alec Secareanu  (Amulet, 2020) offer different interpretations of the entitled male.

To be sure there is no conclusive proof that Mary Anning was this way sexually inclined but in these days of Hollywood reinvention or reimagining for little more than comic-book glory it would be hard not to allow the director some leeway in providing his love story with an interesting backdrop and a fascinating character. At times it is a painful watch, but a rewarding one.

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