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'Titanic' sails again on ABC

The trick to engaging a worldwide audience for "Titanic," ABC's miniseries premiering at 8 p.m. Saturday and concluding the next night on the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking, is to go beyond the tragedy's basics.

Everyone knows how a series of worst-case scenarios led to the sinking of what was supposedly the best and most luxurious ocean liner ever. The goal is to tell this story in a new way.

And "Titanic" succeeds terrifically. This isn't trying to be James Cameron's "Titanic," the 1997 phenomenon that captured 11 Oscars. There have been so many films and documentaries, but this one stands apart.

Granted, the facts must stay the same, but what this production does is blend actual and fictional characters and show the disaster from different vantage points. It's a masterful reimagining by writer Julian Fellowes (Academy Award for "Gosford Park," Emmy for "Downton Abbey").

"There was something about these people, so powerful and so rich and all of this, and yet everyone is powerless in the face of nature," says Fellowes, a Briton who grew up interested in the story.

Each of the four segments features the sinking, and the miniseries delves into who the passengers and crew were and how they interacted with one another when death was imminent.

Ideally, Fellowes wanted great actors to flesh out the characters but not huge stars whose presence would overshadow the story. The large cast includes Linus Roache, Geraldine Somerville, Glen Blackhall and Antonio Magro.

Roache, best known as ADA Michael Cutter on "Law & Order," speaks in his natural British accent as Hugh, Earl of Manton.

"Obviously, he is an aristocrat, part of an era before the fall of the British Empire, a couple of years away from the First World War," Roache says of his character. "It is very hard to relate to a man of that status, who had inherited wealth and a lifestyle led by society. He had responsibilities in life, but the way I felt what Julian captured, you got a sense of the man standing on all of that entitlement but very progressive in his thinking."

The movie opens with the earl insisting that his daughter be freed from jail this instant; she had been locked up for protesting as a suffragette. Like the others booked for first class, the earl has a sense about him that he simply deserves the very best. Yet there's also a genuine hint of altruism to him, which comes through during the four segments.

Somerville (Harry's mom in the Harry Potter movies) plays Roache's wife, Louisa, the imperious Countess of Manton. In "Titanic," she is high-handed. At times, she's the sort of woman who is insufferable, considering everyone beneath her.

"She has a rather distant relationship with her husband, which was fairly common in those days," Somerville says. "They have a reprieve as a couple. Within any other situation, they might not have this life, and death is the first honest moment they actually have in years between them."

This couple is among many whose relationships are instantly clarified as the ship goes down. Couples, parents and children, and siblings all experience that moment when death is certain, and in their final moments, they need to make peace.

Just as when it was clear to people in the Twin Towers that they would perish and they called home to say simply "I love you," many people here have those three words as their last. And, as in the terrorist attacks, strangers helped one another.

"The tragedy of the Titanic brought out the best in far, far more people than it brought out the worst," Fellowes says. "When you read the accounts, the vast majority of them were incredibly brave, and I do find that very inspiring. I think it is sort of heartening."


On the cover: Perdita Weeks, Linus Roache and Geraldine Somerville.