Cameron's exquisite attention to detail in regards to the sets, costumes and of course the innovative CGI is what makes this film work. Also helping it along is the wonderful Kate Winslet as Rose and Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack. She and Leo DiCaprio have amazing chemistry together as the fictional couple from different worlds. The way that sci-fi and horror director Cameron turns the Titanic into a monster when it hits the iceberg is something to see - the last fifteen minutes of the sinking is awesome to watch.
What doesn't work? With so many amazing real life stories of the passengers and crew of the famous ship, James Cameron decides not just to ignore them, but create a rather foolish and preposterous tale about a missing diamond and filling out the supporting cast with cliched, silent film type characters (the snooty mother, an odious fiancé, a greedy publicity hungry shipping magnate) which takes away from the natural power of the famous shipwreck. Billy Zane is particularly bad here in a Snidely Whiplash-esque turn here as Rose's fiancé Cal Hockley, complete with an equally nefarious sidekick/right hand man played by David Warner. And Frances Fisher as Rose's mercenary mother Ruth, gives an icy, one-dimensional performance, like a scheming matriarch in a nighttime soap opera. Fisher is a much better actress than that. And Kathy Bates is criminally wasted as Molly Brown, who was probably the ballsiest passenger onboard. Her presence is muted here, but Bates works with what she's got. And the crew and second class passengers are pretty much ignored. We are left with the wealthy, entitled and elitist first class passengers and the naive, plucky and resourceful immigrants in third class. No one else counts. I also like Bill Paxton in his role as the fortune hunter Brock.
But the film is infectious fun despite its glaring flaws; it's impossible to not get caught up in the sheer spectacle, from the treasure hunters using cutting edge technology to inspect the Titanic's rusty bones, to the excitement of a glamorous ocean liner making its maiden voyage, to the tragically dramatic wreck. The film still manages to impress.
Despite an interesting premise, this film is sluggish with poorly developed characters and red herrings. Thwaites has a likable screen presence in some of his other films, but watching him act in this war-horror movie mashup is the cinematic equivalent of watching the proverbial paint dry. His castmates fare little better.
It's special effects don't hold up, and the sets are inauthentic, but this is probably the best written fictionalized version of the famous shipwreck, led by the always superb Barbara Stanwyck as the runaway socialite wife who - bit shock - escapes the clutches of her domineering husband by booking passage on the world's largest ship. She's in her element here as a woman who has made mistakes but owns up to them and pays the price. Clifton Webb is her snobbish, somewhat twee husband who follows her onboard under an assumed name in an attempt to get her back. I won't go into the details of their story, but suffice it to say that regardless of what happens between the leads, all bets are off once the ship hits that iceberg. Thelma Ritter almost steals the show as a Molly Brown-type character with an endless arsenal of one-liners. The sets are wildly inaccurate, which the casual viewer won't notice, but fans of ocean liners and all things Titanic the ship will be bothered by. But the story and pacing are leagues ahead of James Cameron's more famous epic.
I loved Julie Christie and Laurence Harvey in this film; Dirk Bogarde, a little less so. This is the first film that comes to mind whenever I think of London in the "Swinging Sixties". This was one of the first films made during the sweeping revisions of the Motion Picture Production Code, so the film embraces its sexuality and loosening of the restrictions of the code. Extramarital affairs, abortion, implied sex (including hinting at a live sex show in the UK edit) as well as bisexuality all are given their moment to shine. But it's Julie Christie's Diana Scott - beautiful, sexy, shallow and conniving who walks off with a well deserved Best Actress Oscar. Laurence Harvey is her equal as her lover Miles Brand, injecting the right amount of jaded sexiness and a venomous tongue. Dirk Bogarde was probably fifteen years too old for his part as Diana's first boyfriend, Robert and his acting style is quite mannered and affected, though he gets to shoot off some pithy lines ("I don't take wh**es in taxis"). This is one of director John Schlesinger's best films ever and I highly recommend it.