Saving the Titanic

A dramatisation of 'the battle to save Titanic' features homegrown faces and a lot of heart

Due to high winds, hailstones and logistical problems, tonight’s Belfast Film Festival presentation of Saving the Titanic has had to be relocated from open air at the Thompson Dry Dock to inside Belfast City Hall.

It’s a shame not to be watching the film in the location of RMS Titanic’s final departure from Belfast, 100 years and a day since she sailed into history, but the Great Hall nevertheless makes an evocative venue for the UK premiere of this Irish-German co-production.

Director Maurice Sweeney, producer Stephen Rooke and star Ciarán McMenamin are present, topping and tailing the screening with some nicely chosen words honouring both the victims of Titanic’s sinking on April 15, 1912, and those Ulstermen who died during her construction.

Belfast Film Festival director Michele Devlin is also on hand to lead the audience in a respectful minute’s silence. Although covering similar ground to the recent Channel 5 docudrama Inside the Titanic, Sweeney’s film is a useful, tasteful bit of work.

As a companion piece to the numerous, more conventional tellings of the tragedy, Saving the Titanic is illuminating as well as entertaining. Focusing on the largely overlooked souls who worked below decks to keep Titanic afloat for as long as possible – in the process saving many hundreds of lives – the film manages to shed new light on an old story.

Based on eyewitness accounts, the film spends the majority of its 90 minutes in the engine and boiler rooms before and after the ship struck an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912. We never meet Captain Edward J Smith or any of his deck officers, and there are only fleeting glimpses of the passengers.

Saving the Titanic instead comprises three core stories: those of chief engineer Joseph Bell, from Carlisle, leading fireman Fred Barrett, from Liverpool, and 18-year-old electrical engineer Albert Ervine, from Belfast. Their personal stories of courage are interwoven with technical details, CGI effects and a narration from Liam Cunningham that puts everything in context.

David Wilmot and Derry~Londonderry’s Andrew Simpson are excellent as Bell and Ervine respectively, though Enniskillen-born McMenamin, playing Barrett, is perhaps a touch too moody for the character’s good. It is hard to imagine a man this bolshy rising to the position of leading fireman aboard one of the world’s most prestigious vessels.

Shot primarily at Kempton Steam Museum, near London, production values remain high throughout, with the newness of Titanic captured well. The nature of the material means Sweeney and Co haven’t had to, er, sink their budget into recreating the evacuation on the upper decks.

The approach works, not just by saving the filmmakers money, but also by conjuring the claustrophobia and confusion that must have affected the engineering crew as they languished in the ship’s bowels, waiting for information.

Saving the Titanic reinforces how grim life must have been for these men, physically (Barrett’s double shifts in the boiler room, given as a punishment for fighting, certainly wouldn’t pass health and safety legislation today) as well as mentally (‘This is a Protestant ship,’ a senior engineer informs a fresh-faced Catholic crewman).

The dramatisation of the battle to save Titanic is framed by scenes featuring Barrett – who survived – attending the subsequent British inquiry, where he is encouraged to identify ‘heroes’ onboard, to satisfy public demand. He refuses to play ball with the White Star Line bigwigs, and spends the film’s final moments revisiting the very dry dock where we should be sitting now.

It is unfortunate that tonight’s screening had to be moved, but at least the Belfast Film Festival has learned from Titanic’s mistakes. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Saving the Titanic will be broadcast on RTÉ One on April 9 at 9.30pm, on the History Channel on April 14 at 6pm and 10pm, and on Channel 4 on April 15 (time TBC). Belfast Film Festival's Titanic Film Programme Pop-Up Cinema runs at Belfast City Hall from April 7 - 10.