I suppose it is not especially strange that in the centenary year of the sailing and the sinking of the Titanic we would see two miniseries on the subject. The first, written by “Downton Abbey” scribe Julian Fellowes, played here in April on ABC, its final episode timed to air 100 years to the night the ship went down; my fellow critic Mary McNamara called it “ill-paced, sanctimonious and overly stuffed.”
“Titanic: Blood and Steel,” which begins Monday on Encore, is the second and, I feel safe in saying, the last such miniseries we will see this year, or soon. It’s a lot to ask of viewers already busy digesting the fall season. At 12 hours, to be shown two-a-night through Saturday, it is longer than a season of “Game of Thrones.”
But if you’re a person for whom television is just a lot of things that aren’t as good as “Downton Abbey,” this thing does at least resemble it in many ways: the costumes, the class distinctions, the changing mores of the early 20th century. And, though it is flat and obvious at times, and some might call it ill-paced — I think of it as leisurely — it is only a little sanctimonious and not at all stuffed.
Indeed, it gives its characters so much room to move that they tend to repeat themselves. But it also feels more lifelike for it. Without making any great claims for the series, I found it diverting.
What primarily sets it apart from other Titanic films is that almost none of it takes place on the ship. Set in Belfast from 1907 to 1912, it’s concerned instead with building the boat, and it weaves in stories of workers’ rights, women’s rights, religious tensions, Home Rule, immigration, emigration and early stirrings of world war. There is love and espionage and fine Italian plasterwork
Moving through this hurly-burly is good-looking young metallurgist Mark Muir (Kevin Zegers), forever annoying the project’s rich backers with inconvenient facts about steel and rivets: “We stand at the border where our ambition shall outstrip our technology,” he proclaims, “and I’m here to stop that from happening.”
But being merely of their time and mostly concerned with money, they don’t listen especially hard: “You needn’t concern yourself about the steel we use, Dr. Muir; it’s of the best quality.” Another portion of ironic foreshadowing, m’ lord?
Mark catches the eye both of upper-crust Kitty (Ophelia Lovibond) and humble draftswoman Sofia (Alessandra Mastronardi), each of whom is being pushed toward an undesirable marriage by her father. It’s complicated, as the saying goes.
Chris Noth as financier J.P. Morgan (“She’s more than I ever imagined,” he gets to say, “she is — titanic”) and Neve Campbell as a journalist bring the American celebrity to this “international production.” Derek Jacobi, the most august actor here, plays shipyard chairman Lord William Pirrie, a liberal soul among uptight cheapskates.
Our knowledge of the ship’s fate — history, you spoiler! — generates a low-frequency background hum that colors the action. But the characters are working on other problems, and because the ship never sinks here, but only sails away, the series ends on an oddly sunny note. Which is nice.
‘Titanic: Blood and Steel’
When: 8 and 8:49 p.m. Mon. (Parts 1 and 2 of 12; through Sat.)
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)