Just as an aside: for those keeping track, I’ve added a post-script to my piece A Matter of National (In)Security. Now on with today’s post…
I tend to write involved (read: long winded) posts about broad-themed topics, usually pertaining to Canadian film & TV. I maintain a website called The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies & TV in which I post actual capsule reviews. But every now and then I figure it’s worth talking about such specific productions here, too.
I was thinking about this in relation to the sprawling, big budget mini-series, Titanic: Blood & Steel, which is currently airing on CBC TV. Because it’s a “mini-series” I normally wouldn’t write a review until I’d seen the whole thing, once it was done, at which point the review would then be archival — more aimed at people who might come upon it a few months or years down the line on the DVD shelf or something. But because it’s a whopping (I think) 12 hour-long episodes — basically the length of a Canadian TV season — I thought maybe I’d say something about it while it was still airing and just a remote click away.
‘Cause, so far at least, it’s actually pretty good.
Yet I get the impression it may be flying below a lot of people’s radars.
2012 is the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, which has led to all sorts of commemorative projects (or crass exploitation, depending on your point of view) from a re-release (in 3D yet!) of the 1997 film, to a Sherlock Holmes audio play from Big Finish (The Perfidious Mariner) and others.
Not only is Titanic: Blood and Steel actually the second Titanic mini-series aired this year, but both it and the earlier one — called simply Titanic — were international co-productions with Canadian participation (albeit largely U.K. driven).
The earlier Titanic (written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes) was okay, but fairly traditional in that it was just your usual disaster movie scenario (with a British finesse) — though given a stylistic twist by following parallel stories, basically covering the same few hours from different perspectives in different episodes. But in general it was kind of what you’d expect from a Titanic story (of which there have been many over the years).
So in that sense, Titanic: Blood & Steel is rather atypical in the annals of Titanic fiction. It’s not about the doomed maiden voyage, but about the building of the vessel in the first place. Indeed, the story begins a couple of years before the ship’s keel even touches water! Which is maybe the irony. The fact that it’s called “Titanic”, though obviously the marketing hook, might well turn off viewers who might feel rather satiated on Titanic dramas over the years, when so far the Titanic itself is really just a back drop to the action. It could be any undertaking, as it’s just a catalyst to bring together various disparate characters, and to use it as a microcosm to examine a time and a place. The ship was being built in Northern Ireland, so she serves as a backdrop for a story about rising unionism, class struggle, sectarian bigotry — and, of course, star-crossed romances and soap opera-y secrets. It’s more a gritty “big hat” mini-series than a traditional disaster movie.
It’s got a large cast of characters, from different walks of life. As mentioned, it’s an international co-production. So far, the only Canadian actors featured are Kevin Zegers and Neve Campbell. But unlike the earlier Titanic mini-series, where the Canadian actors were fairly peripheral, here Zegers (at least) is basically the star — at least, as much as one can star in an ensemble. He plays a determined metallurgist concerned about structural integrity in the building supplies, a seeming English Protestant who’s hiding his Irish Catholic roots. Zegers had never made that much impression upon me, I’ll admit — I had nothing against him, but I figured a lot of his fandom was teenage girls, the actor himself having trouble fully breaking from his background as a teen/young adult actor. But this is changing my assessment — he’s quite good here, settling comfortably, and sympathetically, into the central role. It’s an international cast and with good turns all around, from Italian actress Alessandra Mastronardi as a spunky proto-feminist (and romantic interest) to the mainly Irish and U.K. cast (including Sir Derek Jacobi who seems to be able to invest syllables with nuances that most actors couldn’t invest into whole sentences). American actor Chris Noth has so far appeared briefly as an American investor, adopting more of a character actor approach that’s a nice contrast to, say, his The Good Wife role.
The reason I’m writing this, as I say, is just because I’m not sure how much attention the series is getting — the few write ups I’ve seen have been generally favourable. But I just haven’t seen that many write ups (less even than the earlier Titanic mini-series received!). And I can’t really give it a definitive thumbs up, obviously, since I’m only part way through.
The ratings seemed to be around 500 000 which, by Canadian standards, isn’t maybe horrendous — but nothing to boast about (put another way: it’s a good thing it’s a mini-series…’cause with those numbers it probably wouldn’t have been renewed for a 2nd season). At the same time, is that a mark against it — or simply to be expected for a sprawling period drama in primetime when most people are watching sitcoms and cop dramas?
That’s always been the CBC’s dilemma — damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t. When it airs material that’s not quite conventional commercial network fare (Titanic: Blood and Steel maybe more suited to Masterpiece Theatre on PBS) detractors slam it for being elitist and out of touch, and when it does try making more conventional sitcoms or crime dramas, detractors accuse it of being redundant and say it should devote itself to more atypical programs.
Still, that’s why I’m writing this — just to draw attention to it for those who might be interested but either didn’t realize it was on, or just dismissed it sight unseen as some tawdry disaster movie. Because it’s such a lengthy saga — at 12 hour long episodes it’s almost more a series than a mini-series — even if you’ve missed the first few episodes you can probably jump on board (no pun intended) and pick up on what you missed.
It’s on Wednesdays on the CBC.