“Titanic” was the first “grown-up” film I was allowed to watch. I expect I was roughly eight years old, and I was taken straight off the Disney Princess films and Roald Dahl adaptations and plunged (sorry) straight into the choppy waters of an adult, Hollywood blockbuster–telling the true story of a tragic accident in 1912.
Growing up in Scotland, young children had this habit when watching a film together where they would each pick a character to “be” for the duration of the narrative. For example, if “Beauty and the Beast” were playing, someone would yell out, “I’m the candlestick” etcetera.
This is a very common trait, and it reveals that people do fully immerse themselves within storytelling and identify with the protagonists involved, and while I had been active in this game as a little girl, I had never truly connected to any of the characters who I had got to “be”.
See this girl? Well, that’s me. This photograph is certainly not a favourite of mine, but it was taken recently and it does demonstrate one clear thing that we must get out of the way before continuing with this essay; I suffer from C.R.B.
Chronic Resting Bitchface.
It’s difficult to cure, but easy to diagnose. While this photograph was taken, I remember being perfectly happy. I was pleased to be involved in such an amazing project, with such strong and empowering women, and the script I had the pleasure of performing was witty, moving and a delight.
Yet none of that translated to my face.
So we return to “Titanic”.
See this girl? She, too, has C.R.B. And I remember watching her as a child and being mesmerised.
You see, women in film and television are two things: very rare in leading roles, and often not allowed to look grumpy or unhappy. Even Judy Garland had to cry prettily when she thought the Wicked Witch of the West was going to do her in. So Kate Winslet in “Titanic” was the first time I, as a child who had been living off princesses, actually saw another human woman who did not smile unnecessarily. For the very first time, as I rewinded my old “Titanic” video tape from Tesco’s, I saw me. Myself. Someone like me.
As years went on, more ties holding us together became apparent. I wish I were making some of them up, but I’m not. Other than both being somewhat creepily born on October the 5th, I managed to get myself into a nasty relationship with someone older, richer and stronger than myself. He eventually became violent, which is why the moment where Cal breaks the tea set on the promenade deck is both so terrifying and poignant to me. The moment when someone switches from being controlling and possessive into genuinely frightening and dangerous. The embarrassment that Rose feels as she tries to clean up the mess is so achingly familiar, it has become a moment I prefer to fast forward.
It’s also why Rose trusting Jack with her safety is so beautiful and moving. The scene has become so famous within our culture, it isn’t even taken that seriously anymore. “I’m flying” has become a catchphrase; a gimmick even. Yet, to me, this remains one of the greatest moments of cinema because of its simplicity and its hope.
I went to an all female, private school so I also understand the desperate need for a little rebellion. In fact, it’s entirely healthy. Having spent my teen years studying, staying at home reading, going to afternoon teas, music lessons, concerts, recitals, lectures, operas, ballets and Oxbridge type open days, I was ready to unclip the wings and get out. My family are still somewhat in shock over my decision to run to New York aged seventeen, rather than go to study at Cambridge, Exeter or St. Andrews but I know it was the right thing to do.
Rose’s naked body, another infamous element of the picture, was also a shining beacon of hope for me as a young woman. She was not the stick-thin, straight up and down, gamine type that we were constantly exposed to as young girls. Her waist was normal, she had an arse and breasts, none of her bones were sticking out–it was nothing short of miraculous to see. Another moment of staring at the television screen and saying, “Someone like me.” Not fat, not thin.
Also, I find it somewhat beautiful that my first ever nude scene was one where the woman was fully empowered and in control. Jack Dawson is the one who is nervous, Rose is completely at home with her decision to take off her clothes and feel beautiful while doing it.
What could be sexier than that?
Maybe it’s the connection I feel, or maybe it’s my own life experience, but Cal’s brutal behaviour towards Rose in the final acts of the picture never fail to fill me with rage and despair. The moment where he calls her “it” is nothing short of harrowing; for that’s how abusers make you feel. Inhuman and unloved.
And Rose gets to do something that most abuse victims do not. She gets to slam him with an incredible Hollywood one-liner and then spit in his face. Beautiful.
All of this emotion and empowerment, plus incredible performances from smaller characters that create an amazing ensemble feel within the picture, and you’ve got a film that (despite its commercial success and its unpopularity with certain film snobs) will live forever.
Rose taught me women never have to smile. She taught me that having breasts and an arse is acceptable. She taught me that you don’t have to take physical or mental abuse (albeit a little too late) and Leo’s body disappearing into the Atlantic taught me to cry.
There I was, eight years old, sobbing. My first lesson in unhappy/bittersweet endings. This would never happen in Disney, as a child I couldn’t believe it. The cruelty of it. But then look what happened: Rose went from wanting to throw herself into the ocean to wanting to live. Really live, on her terms and without limitations. She blazed her own trail. It is a kind of happy ending now that I’m older, I just couldn’t see it as a girl. There was something about the length of the film, the journey that we had been on, and then Jack’s face disappearing into the depths of the ocean that made it so unbearable and so unfair.
So congratulations, Leonardo. You may have finally won that Oscar for “The Revenant” but in my heart, it was a belated gift from the Academy for your work in “Titanic”.
And cheers, Rose. C.R.B sisters for life!