Thanks largely to the billion-dollar efforts of James Cameron, Leonardo DiCaprio, and, to a lesser extend, Celine Dion, the name Titanic is now synonymous with romance and the inextinguishable belief of 14-year-old girls that true love is possible – even if one of you ends up dying of hypothermia then sinking to the bottom of the North Atlantic. In that regard, Cameron's 'Titanic' managed to take one of the most significant maritime disasters and turn it into one of the highest grossing motion pictures of all time. Of course, he wasn't the first filmmaker who thought the tragic story of the sinking of the "Ship of Dreams" would make for a great night out at the movies – but his certainly was the biggest.
So when the time came to revisit the story of Titanic, the producers behind the 12-episode series, 'Titanic: Blood & Steel,' wisely decided that another retelling of that infamous night was not only unnecessary, from a storytelling standpoint, but the notion of topping Cameron's vision would be a exercise in futility. So the folks handling the undertaking decided to look back at the creation of the ship itself. To help themselves out, they've chosen to look back at Titanic's construction with much the same kind of flawless vision, granted through the infallibility of hindsight, as Aaron Sorkin's 'The Newsroom' does in regards to political and world events. But just so it doesn't feel like 12 hours of the blame game, 'Titanic: Blood & Steel' also includes a myriad of subplots that range from class warfare to socialism to the beginning of the Irish Republican Army.
That may seem like a lot of extraneous storytelling, but keep in mind the story consists of 12 hour-long episodes, and as initially exciting as it is to watch skilled workers place rivets into steel plates, or listen to various characters use words like "uncharted territory" and "profits", it is probably in the series' best interest to offer the viewer something in which they can invest more of their emotion. To that end, 'Titanic: Blood & Steel' manages to be oddly similar to Ken Follett's 'World Without End,' another lengthy series that uses history as the foundation for romantic intrigue and semi-didactic moments regarding various political and religious organizations from the past.
The difference here being, this series takes place around the start of the 20th century, in Belfast, as opposed to a fictional 14th century English town. There is a significant amount of leeway one grants to a story with historical aspirations dating back several hundred years that are completely different to one set more recently. However, as 'World Without End' struggled to find a place for many of its more modern modes of thinking (i.e. feminism, workers' rights, scientific principles vs. theological ones), 'Titanic: B&S' slips such notions into the narrative with much greater ease. Now that's not to say the storyline or its execution surrounding the building of the RMS Titanic is necessarily more successful in its approach to the subject matter – it is, actually, as melodramatic and occasionally overwrought as anything in the adaptation of Follett's work – it's just that such ideas and principles aren't as likely to wind up as rather dubious anachronisms that undermine the main storyline.
And what an ambitious storyline it is. 'Titanic: B&S' is really just using the building of the doomed ship as a springboard for a much larger, sometimes successful tale about British rule, prejudice and revolution for the working class and the Catholics in Ireland. While it's not exactly 'Bloody Sunday,' or 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley,' the series does use its considerable length to tell a more detailed (albeit heavy handed and occasionally superficial) story about the lives of the Irish working class and the challenges they faced stemming from being thought of as second-class citizens in their own country.
Kevin Zegers ('Dawn of the Dead,' 'Frozen') plays metallurgist Dr. Mark Muir, recently handpicked by J.P. Morgan (Chris Noth) to head up research into the kind of steel used to construct the great ship. Naturally, Muir is met with great opposition from those who want to maximize profit on the building of Titanic, at the expense of what they deem unreasonable safety precautions. Muir is scrutinized for his unrelenting complaints about the way the ship is being built, and soon the truth comes out that he's actually Mark Malone, Irish Catholic, and former resident of Belfast. To further complicate matters, Muir begins a romantic relationship with an Italian immigrant named Sofia (Alessandra Mastronardi), after a brief fling with a wealthy young woman named Kitty (Ophelia Lovibond), all before inadvertently inspiring a journalist, Joanna Yaegar (Neve Campbell), to misquote him referring to Titanic as "unsinkable".
The series reserves most of its Titanic references to make insinuations at the capitalistic culture that spawned the massive ship, and chose to overlook safety, science and common sense in favor of higher profits. In fact, at one point, someone actually says, "Science should never replace good judgment, or common sense," if that's any indication the level of subtlety on display in the script. But really, ironic glimpses into Titanic's future, and the sidestepping of precautions that led it to sink are only one half of the series. An almost greater part of the story actually revolves around Michael McCann (Branwell Donaghey), his sister Mary (Charlotte Bradley) and their roguish brother Conor (Martin McCann), as they pick up the fight against British rule through a series of events that leaves Mary widowed, Michael running for Parliament and Conor falling in league with the IRA. In essence, they become the heart of the series; they all dream of beginning a revolution that will forever change the course of Ireland and its people – because if anyone can, the McCann clan can (try saying that five times fast).
Overseeing everything is the presence of Derek Jacobi, as Lord Pirrie – the man whose shipyard would construct Titanic. Even for those who may not know him by name, most will certainly recognize Jacobi's face, and he does a commendable job as the sympathetic, but powerless businessman whose political leanings get him into hot water with his less liberal-minded colleagues. Much of the time, Jacobi is asked to puff his chest with indignation at accusations from both sides of the labor dispute, while groaning about his utter ineffectiveness later in confidence with his wife or close friends. The attempts and failures of Lord Pirrie, and his subsequent lamentation of them, becomes a tad repetitious, but is certainly in keeping with the manner in which such heavy social issues are presented here.
As such, 'Titanic: Blood & Steel' has the benefit of making its take on complex social issues and historical events look and feel sharp and well-drawn, by sheer virtue of its size and scope. But one must be careful not to consider the varied complications that arise within the multi-tiered narrative as actual complexity of storyline. To be fair, there is the sense that all those involved were aware the soapy nature of the tale they'd chosen to tell, and this comes through well-enough that, from the start, it's clear the story isn't asking the audience to rely on it as anything but light historical fiction. Even though it has a clear agenda in terms of political leanings, and affiliations, the story is tempered with enough exaggerated elements of romance, class warfare and revolution that it won't ruffle too many feathers. This may be history, but 'Titanic: Blood & Steel' doesn't appear to be taking it that seriously.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Titanic: Blood & Steel' comes packaged as your average 3-disc set – meaning, a standard Blu-ray case with an addition holder inserted to accommodate all discs. There is also a handy insert that gives a complete rundown of all the episodes with the title and a brief synopsis of each. There is also a slipcover that shows the same basic, floating-head image as the case – which prominently features Neve Campbell and Chris Noth – though they both play less than substantial roles in the series.
The 1080p AVC-encoded transfer here is quite good, and remains consistently so throughout all 12 episodes of the series. Shot digitally, the image is remarkably clean and free of any artifacts that would otherwise mar the quality. As this is a period piece depicting a specific place and time, there has been substantial visual effects work done to accurately convey early 20th century Belfast, as well as the shipyard capable of constructing a vessel as large as the RMS Titanic. Clearly, a great deal of effort has gone into ensuring everything maintains the level of consistency needed to present this story with a modicum of believability.
The actual Blu-ray image does a great deal of work in presenting the world as the director, Ciaran Donnelly, had envisioned. The extensive digital effects never seem to compromise the cinematography, or get in the way of the story (which, really is the idea behind most effects work) and due to the layering of certain digital elements, the image goes beyond what many would think a television production would be capable of presenting.
As such, fine detail is nearly always present; facial features, and textures are plainly visible and the image is (despite much tinkering) very lifelike, rich and warm. Though much of Belfast is presented by means of the drab confines of the working class homes, and, especially the shipyard where the ship's construction was undertaken, even these elements stand out as sharp looking and vibrant. Elsewhere, scenes in the forests surrounding Belfast, or the posh residences of the ruling class, are flush with excellent detail and an abundance of color. Expectedly, with an image this good, contrast levels are high, and remain so throughout. Blacks are always deep and inky, but never obscure fine detail – even in low-light settings.
This is a very nice image that goes a long way in making the series feel more legitimate and epic than perhaps it really is.
While the case and slipcover only list a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio option, the disc reveals the only choice to actually be a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Whether this is a misprint, or a last minute decision was made after the covers had already been printed remains to be seen (and isn't really that important), but the benefit of the DTS mix is certainly not lost here. It seems as though the production of 'Titanic: Blood & Steel' spared no expense in terms of audio and visual presentation. Here, the mix does everything one would hope, and, like the image, is a far cry better than may have been expected.
Most importantly, dialogue is crisp and easily understood – even with some of the thicker accents being tossed around. Additionally, the mix is balanced quite well, which allows the dramatic score to come in and build to a crescendo without overpowering the actors' performances, or sounding blown out on the speakers. Furthermore, there are frequent scenes where the action is quite busy, involving many extras all speaking at once, and, often times, a great deal of sound effects. Thankfully, the mix handles them all in such a manner that the appropriate sense of immersion in a bustling crowd or a busy, noisy shipyard is achieved. Imaging and directionality, though minor in most cases, also works quite well.
For a time, it seemed as though stories told in this fashion – by which I mean lengthy, self-contained narratives told across several hours – had gone by the wayside, but with television maintaining a sort of renaissance that specializes in just that sort of thing, programs like 'Titanic: Blood & Steel' seem not only inevitable, but a welcome addition to the television landscape. Though at times the series' storytelling comes off as inelegant, or unnecessarily moralizing, there is no denying that it is an impressive-looking bit of television (and with an estimated $30 million budget, it should be), which can be enjoyed in much the same manner as James Cameron's more bombastic, but equally engrossing film. No doubt, many who watch this series will be pulling their copy of 'Titanic' from the shelf as soon as the credits role on the series' twelfth episode. It's not a documentary, and, as far as I can tell, never purported to be anything close, so the historical nature of the series should be taken with a grain of salt. Who knows, perhaps it will inspire a few to look into more qualified accounts of the events depicted here. At any rate, this is a solid 12-hour series presented on an equally solid, 3-disc Blu-ray set with excellent picture and good sound. The extras could have been more substantial, but seem about par for the course in terms of the actual depth that's present in this production. This one is definitely worth a look.