Julian Fellowes aims to right perceived wrongs of James Cameron's 'Titanic'

Posted by · 1:02 pm · March 21st, 2012

For some reason, amid the building media hype about the release, I feel oddly disinclined to see “Titanic 3D” — neither because I fear, as Roger Ebert bemoaned, the defacement of some kind of masterpiece, nor because I so dislike the film as to make an active point of not revisiting it.

That said, I somehow haven’t revisited it since December 1997, though it certainly hasn’t slipped from memory. What I remember fondly of it (and there’s much to go under that column) I remember vividly enough not to crave a reminder. I also remember much that was lunky and crass and tin-eared, none of it likely to be remedied by an extra dimension. The film’s charms are, in my mind, irrevocably tied to conditions of who and where I was when I first saw it, aged 14, smack in the middle of the demographic that rather infectiously lost their collective minds for it that summer. (Yes, I was in the southern hemisphere then.) Historical epic it may be, but it’s a teenage time-capsule piece for me, and coating it in the ubiquitous 21st-century veneer of state-of-the-art 3D seems somehow anachronistic. I’m not claiming it’s rational, but it’s why I’m personally resisting.

Whatever my reasons for distancing myself from James Cameron’s film, they’re certainly not the same as those of Julian Fellowes — who has rather bluntly lashed out at “Titanic” (with or without 3D) on the basis of its factual inaccuracies. This isn’t an unmotivated statement: the Oscar-winning writer of “Gosford Park” and recent TV hit “Downtown Abbey” has his own dramatization of the Titanic story due to hit small screens later this year, He claims that it’ll right several of Cameron’s historical wrongs, notably what he perceives as the unjust treatment of the ship’s real-life first office William Murdoch, played in the 1997 film by Ewan Stewart. Fellowes tells Britain’s Radio Times:

“That was very unfair how Murdoch was depicted. He wasn”t cowardly. He fired the pistol to just stop a potential riot. It was suddenly getting out of hand, and he fired it in the air. That”s not being cowardly. I don”t think you can just say, ‘Well, we”ll make this guy a villain – he”ll do.’ I think with real people you have a kind of imperative to be true to who they were. I don’t think you can take someone who was moral and decent and make them do something immoral and indecent. I would feel uncomfortable doing that. So we do have Murdoch, and we have him firing a pistol, [but] there is a little bit of setting the record straight.”

Well, yes and no. I have little doubt that Fellowes’s narrative treatment of this oft-told story will boast more even-handed fidelity to the facts than Cameron’s unabashed fantasy, but we’re talking about two separate modes and objectives of storytelling. No film in which Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” winds up at the bottom of the North Atlantic — as opposed to the Museum of Modern Art, where it hangs safe and dry today — is claiming to be any less than 90% a romantic fiction.

As a fairytale riff on a true event, mixing Harlequin-level imaginary figures with real-life ones scarcely less cartoonish, “Titanic” is free to mold the truth to its own purposes in the pursuit of audience feeling, however gauchely it does so. (Fellowes has some experience in this area, having inserted a fabrication of legendary British composer Ivor Novello into the fiction of “Gosford Park.”) Self-professed biopics and historical studies are fair game for fact-checking trials; wilful flights of fancy like “Titanic,” which essentially amounts to storytelling about storytelling, less so. There, I might have talked myself into revisiting it after all.

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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