By Chaz Lipp
Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Titanic: Blood and Steel on Blogcritics.
The 12-part miniseries Titanic: Blood and Steel aired in the U.S. on the Encore network in October. It had already aired internationally earlier in 2012. Lionsgate has now issued the De Angelis Group production on Blu-ray as a three-disc set. The series ostensibly tells the story of the construction of doomed passenger liner RMS Titantic. Facts are played with fast and loose as a variety of mostly fictional characters, including the genius metallurgist Dr. Mark Muir (Kevin Zegers), interact at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Ireland. Dr. Muir has been hired to test the steel used in the construction of Titanic, ensuring that it’s as pure and strong as possible.
With 2012 being the 100 year anniversary of the tragic sinking of RMS Titanic, interest in the disaster has once again hit fever pitch. James Cameron’s phenomenally popular Titanic not only played theaters again (in 3D, no less), it received its first Blu-ray release. Titanic: Blood and Steel turns out to be less about the ship itself and more about the state of workers’ right in Belfast as the ship was put together. Perhaps 12 parts, each averaging 52 minutes, was biting off more than the writers and director Ciaran Donnelly could chew. A menagerie of different topics turns the series into a high profile soap opera of sorts. The struggle between the upper and working classes is explored as the ship builders stage protests against the dictatorial practices of their bureaucratic bosses. Women’s rights in the workforce are another running theme.
Also at the forefront of Blood and Steel is the depiction of extreme prejudices held by Protestants against Catholics. Dr. Muir, it turns out, is a Catholic—a fact he tries to hide from his bigoted employers. As he struggles to keep his true background secret, Muir begins questioning the quality of the steel being used in construction of the ship. His testing reveals impurities that will compromise the strength of the steel. This is one of many areas in which historical inaccuracies are likely to test the patience of hardcore Titanic buffs. While modern testing has apparently determined that the ship’s steel was inferior by today’s standards, it was actually the best available in its era. It’s always dangerous when a highly fictionalized dramatization presents itself as a true account. Of course, Muir’s constant tinkering with steel samples provides heavy foreshadowing of the impending disaster (not depicted in this series). But especially considering most of the subplots don’t even directly involve RMS Titanic, it comes off as a too-convenient plot device.
Not a lot of star power is on hand for Blood and Steel. Supporting turns by Chris Noth (in five episodes) as J.P. Morgan and Neve Campbell (in six) as journalist Joanna Yaegar are about as impressive as it gets on that front. Zegers turns in good work as the driven Dr. Muir, as does Alessandra Mastronardi as Muir’s love interest Sofia Silvestri.
The problem isn’t the cast or the production values (which are impressive). The reason the series never becomes compelling is due to a lack of focus and limp episode conclusions that don’t really compel the viewer to select the next one. The producers were aiming to chronicle all the workplace injustices of the era. This was a time when reform was being pushed for aggressively. The construction of RMS Titanic serves as a backdrop to all of this. The overconfidence of the powers that be, as well as their mistreatment of the men and women laboring to fulfill their vision, results in the gargantuan failure of what was to be their greatest creation. But the storytelling isn’t clear, concise, or compelling enough to make these grand ambitions a reality.
As far as visuals go, the 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer is simply jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Unlikely as it may seem, Titanic: Blood and Steel is a subtly demo-worthy high definition viewing experience. It’s not the ship-in-progress CGI that impresses (though there’s nothing wrong with the fine effects work). It’s the extraordinary detail evident in the actor’s faces, costumes, and the practical locations that really stand out. From the smoke-filled shops to the weathered workers’ faces, right down the textures of suit coats, this is a first-rate visual presentation. Wide shots are equal to the close-ups, in terms of clarity.
The Blu-ray case lists the sound as 5.1 Dolby Digital. What a shame it would be to have lossy audio to go with such great visuals, if that were in fact true. The actual soundtrack is presented in sterling 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. That’s a rather odd mistake. I don’t even see the DTS logo anywhere on the packaging and the discs themselves bear only the Dolby logo! At any rate, while not as stunning as the visuals, the mix is pleasingly cinematic. Dialogue is full-bodied and always clear (especially important given the sometimes heavy Irish accents). The score, by Maurizio De Angelis, is a bit overbearing at times, mixed as if meant to cue heavy-handed emotional responses. It sounds good though, as do all the effects. Though not frequent, the ship-building sequences are the most immersive.
Supplemental features are exceedingly light, with only two short featurettes comprising the extras. “Making of Titanic: Blood and Steel” is a fluffy little promo piece. A bit more substantial is “The Visual Effects of…” piece that sheds some light on how the CG work was done. The visual presentation is the real star of this release. RMS Titanic buffs will definitely be interested in this series, but ultimately 12 episodes was a bit of a stretch for this story. It’s watchable—even quite entertaining at times—and the production values are uniformly superb. But even setting historical inaccuracies aside, the soapy melodrama eventually becomes a bit tiresome.