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Occupy first class 

The anniversary of the disaster has inspired a new miniseries, with a closer look at class and social strata both above and below decks.

click to enlarge The one percent get the lifeboats.
  • The one percent get the lifeboats.

The biggest name associated with the new miniseries, Titanic, airing now on Global and due on DVD later in April, isn't Lyndsey Marshal, whom you'll recognize as Cleopatra from HBO's Rome, nor Maria Doyle Kennedy, familiar from her work on The Tudors, or Toby Jones, who played Truman Capote in 2006's Infamous, but rather the writer, Julian Fellowes. He's the Oscar winner (for 2001's Gosford Park) and the creator and sole writer of that show your sister (and likely your brother-in-law as well) is addicted to, Downton Abbey. Just as Fellowes captures the upstairs/downstairs light and darkness of eras past in great English country homes, Titanic dramatizes the class distinctions and social conditions accompanying the passengers on the ship's tragic maiden voyage.

Fellowes deploys a large cast of characters, grounding each of them in a defined struggle. There's an Irish family stowing away in an ill-gotten third class room; a rich bitch about to learn an upsetting secret about her husband; her suffragette daughter falling for an American (egads!) and a steward intending to stay in America once the ship docks there and attempting to convince a co-worker to stay with him.

Each of the episodes follows a few characters from dry land to the ship's eventual sinking. This structure is disconcerting, with each episode climaxing with the boat tipping into the water. At first it feels too rushed (we're here already!) and then eventually dilutes the coming tragedy somewhat with the knowledge that the next episode will rewind back to the safe harbour of pre-voyage.

In the series, every mention of a crew member's lost binoculars is ominous, every mention of unsinkability is tragically ironic, every petty class slight pales in comparison to the indignity everyone is about to suffer jockeying for those few life boats. Many lines feel stepped-on with meaning. This phenomenon is either perceived by the viewer or intended by the filmmakers, but either way is inevitable when incompetence, hubris and arrogance are dramatized in light of a coming disaster.

Fellowes' greatest strength as a writer is his sensitivity to the waves of social transition during the era he is portraying. In Titanic, women are arguing for their right to vote, an unmarried couple scandalizes the stuck-up wives in the first class dining room, religious tensions are simmering as the ship is being built for Protestant owners in Ireland by Catholic tradesmen. One crew member asks another if "it bothers you that they [the first-class passengers] have so much when you have so little," echoing the big questions of the Occupy movement.

Fellowes evokes present day while looking into the past and sees dangerous voyages in both times. Perhaps the meaning of Titanic is we're doomed to repeat ourselves.


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