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Non-Review Review: Saving the Titanic

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

Saving the Titanic is an interesting blend of documentary and drama, exploring the efforts of the engineers onboard the ill-fated ship, fighting to keep her afloat and alight just a little bit longer. The narration from Liam Cunningham suggests that the selfless bravery of those working in the bowels of the ship allowed her to survive more than an hour and a half longer than she should have. While the docu-drama never really reconciles the two approaches it takes to events – creating the impression that it should have opted for a “one or the other” style of approach – it is a fascinating look at one of the most important events of the twentieth century.

It's a dirty job...

I can understand the reason that the production opted for a strange cocktail of documentary film-making and fictionalised storytelling. (Although it was painstakingly researched.) Who wants to sit through a talking heads documentary on a piece of maritime history that we all know mostly off by heart? At the same, cutting away to photos and diagrams and archive footage allows the movie to provide insightful commentary and helpful exposition that would feel somewhat forced inside a conventional narrative.

That said, the two formats seem to be at odds with one another. Liam Cunningham has a great voice, but the interludes tend to yank the audience out of the narrative, and it takes us a while to ease back in. There’s no reason, for example, why the necessary dialogue couldn’t have been eased into the narrative – there’s a wonderfully effective scene, for example, where the designer of the ship explains (using the blueprints) exactly how he can claim the ship is “unsinkable.” There’s no reason the other points couldn’t have been worked into the movie – especially using the framing device of the inquiry.

Saved by the Bell?

Still, it’s a minor complaint about format. It’s a very fascinating angle to take towards the events, looking at it from the lower decks. There are some stunningly powerful moments. Indeed, the working class boiler staff are so isolated within the confines of the engineering section that they have no idea what is happening when the water starts flooding in. “What the hell?” one character asks. When asked what is the cause of the panic, another responds, “Why would they tell us greasers?”

It’s hard for any media project exploring the disaster to escape the shadow cast by a certain big-budget film, and one can feel how James Cameron’s take on the events influence this particular feature. We get a heavy emphasis, again, on class divisions on board the ship, and there’s even a scene where a working class character climbs to the top of the fourth (non-functioning) funnel and surveys the world beneath him. He stops short of describing himself as “king of the world”, but it can’t help but evoke that iconic moment.

It rung true...

Still, the film does a wonderful job carving out its own identity and niche. The class divide is rather brilliantly illustrated when one of the deckhands makes a run for the lifeboats, only to realise that this is his first time on the upper decks. He is even offered a sip of brandy from a table of gentlemen who normally wouldn’t look twice at him. It’s a nice little scene, and it perfectly underscores the sorts of divides that were so common in British society at the time.

Of course, the film tries to reimagine the class struggle on the ship through a distinctively Irish lens. This means, for example, a heavy focus on the dynamic between the Catholic and Protestant works on the ship. While it gets just a bit heavy-handed at times, it makes for a nice and clearly Irish approach to the source material. It is very well composed stuff, and the dramatic element of the production is generally quite compelling.

No room for error...

The production values on the film are astounding. I am referring to the CGI used to bring the exterior of the ship to life, and the wonderful score from Steve Lynch, but the film is stolen by the incredible design of the interior sets. I have no idea how the crew were able to so beautifully recreate those environments, but the film looks and sounds hugely impressive when projected on to a big screen. The sound department deserve special recognition for bringing the sounds of ocean travel to life, to the point where you actually notice when the subtle and steady hum of the ship’s engines come to a halt.

The cast is similarly impressive, with David Wilmont providing a brilliant turn as the ship’s Chief Engineer, Jamie Bell. Wilmont might be best known to international audiences for his supporting turn in The Guard, but his performance here is superbly crafted and wonderfully measured. He is supported by a wealth of Irish talent, and I particularly liked supporting turns from Owen Roe on the board of inquiry, and Hugh O’Connor as an unfortunate transfer. Ciarán McMenamin struggles a bit with his character’s big dramatic scene, but I suspect it’s a script problem – there’s no way to work in that sort of confession, even in a time of crisis, without it seeming slightly forced.

Brought to the boil...

Saving the Titanic is an insightful and clever look at one of the great maritime disasters. It approaches its subject matter in a unique way, and is supported by a strong cast and a superb production design. It does suffer a bit from refusing to favour one approach over the other, but that’s a relatively minor problem with an otherwise impressive Irish film.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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