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(1999) (Tim Roth, Pruitt Taylor Vince) (R)

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Drama: As a man tries to convince authorities that a friend of his is on an old ocean liner scheduled to be blown up, he recalls the story of how he met the friend who was born and grew up on the ship, never once setting foot off it.
Max (PRUITT TAYLOR VINCE) is a retired musician who's wanting to sell his beloved trumpet to the owner of a small, English music shop. Playing the instrument one last time, Max belts out a tune that strikes the owner's ear and causes him to dig up an old, glued-together record of the same song. Max is amazed since only one recording of it was ever made and was certain to have been lost forever.

Yet the shop owner informs Max that the record was discovered in an old piano onboard an ocean liner set to be destroyed. Max then races off to stop that from happening since he's sure that his friend and the song's composer, 1900 (TIM ROTH), who he hasn't seen in years, is still onboard the ship.

Max then recounts how he came to know this oddly named man. Born and later abandoned in a lemon crate on an ocean liner, the Virginian, on the first day of 20th century, a baby is discovered by Danny Boodman (BILL NUNN), one of the ship's engine room stokers. With the mother long gone, Danny adopts the infant, naming him Danny Boodman T.D. Lemon 1900, or just 1900 for short.

In time, the boy grows up hidden amongst the ship's workers, and after surprising everyone with the fact that he's a pianist prodigy, eventually becomes a ship employee, entertaining passengers over the years in both first class and steerage. Yet despite his special gift and capacity to become rich off his music, 1900 never has any desire to leave the ship and thus never sets foot on dry land, no matter how much prodding or urging from others, or his attraction to a beautiful third class passenger (MELANIE THIERRY).

As Max recalls his time spent playing in the ship's band with 1900 -- including the virtuoso's piano showdown with "the man who invented jazz," Jelly Roll Morton (CLARENCE WILLIAMS III) -- he tries to stop the demolition, believing full well that 1900 is probably still on board the ship, and tries to find and remove his old friend before it's too late.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Like most storytelling mediums, films have various means of telling their tales. While most are linear in fashion and simply proceed from start to finish, others play around with their time structure. From titles such as Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" that repeatedly told the same story from different perspectives to some of the works of Quentin Tarantino that rearrange the chronological order of events in them, such somewhat unique approaches at telling stories are often a welcomed change from what's normally presented most of the time, particularly if they're handled appropriately and with some imagination.

While not as temporally extravagant or imaginative as those examples, writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore's first English language film, "The Legend of 1900," does make effective use of its nonlinear approach, if just in the familiar plot of alternating between stories of two different times.

Somewhat similar to films such as "Fried Green Tomatoes" where a contemporary story (in relation to the main plot) leads to flashbacks telling another story, this one focuses far more on the "older" portion. That said, the cumulative effect of the two parts -- which are directly related to one another unlike other films featuring only a loose connection -- comes off as a mostly satisfactory piece of filmmaking.

What makes the film -- based on a dramatic monologue, "Novecento," by contemporary Italian novelist Alessandro Baricco -- so intriguing is the notion of a man, born and raised on an ocean liner, who's never set foot on dry land. While that might sound like a self-limiting premise, one must remember that such oceangoing vessels are usually enormous and the revolving number of people on them immense (which partially explains both "Titanic" and TV's "The Love Boat" surviving such physical "limitations").

Of course, this isn't an epic romance/adventure/tragedy and fortunately doesn't come close to approaching the schmaltz of that Aaron Spelling production. Instead, it's obviously more of a character-driven drama told in a highly visual style. That shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone who's seen director Giuseppe Tornatore Oscar winning (for Best Foreign Language Film) picture, "Cinema Paradiso."

Although the temporal-hopping plot here does give this film something of a fragmented feel -- particularly as the early flashbacks concerning 1900's early years are somewhat unavoidably episodic in structure -- Tornatore manages to induce a slow to develop, but still effective spell that eventually sweeps over the audience.

Much of that can be credited to the film's overall visual aura that makes this one of the year's most beautiful looking productions. From the wonderful cinematography provided by director of photography Lajos Koltai ("Mother," "Home for the Holidays") to the impressive and varied look of the ship courtesy of production designer Francesco Frigeri (the TV miniseries "Christopher Columbus") to the appropriate period costumes from Maurizio Millenotti ("Immortal Beloved," "Hamlet"), the film has a highly stylized and wonderfully visualized feel throughout.

Being a film about a pianist, the film naturally places a great deal of focus on the musical aspect as well. While actor Tim Roth -- who plays 1900 -- doesn't actually play the piano, he believably fakes it with some help from having a real pianist's hands digitally inserted into the shots. Although those are the moments that receive the most attention, it's the score by four-time Oscar-nominated composer Ennio Morricone ("Bugsy," "The Untouchables"), that really makes the film fly.

In a smart move, Tornatore combines the two elements -- visuals and music -- in the film's most memorable and nicely staged scenes. One includes a wild and near fantasy-like moment where 1900, accompanied by his new seasick acquaintance, ride a rolling piano throughout a ballroom that's swaying to and fro from high seas. Although the scene doesn't make any sense on a logical level -- 1900 has invited the seasick man to ride with him as if rolling and swinging around on a piano would cure such a nauseous malady -- it's quite fun in a solely visual sense.

The film's big moment, however, comes in the piano duel between 1900 and the legendary musician, Jelly Roll Morton -- the picture's only fact-based character -- where the latter tries to intimidate and musically defeat this new upstart. While it never quite attains the revved up, heart-pumping feeling that it should, the sequence is still quite fun and allows 1900 the opportunity to provide the coup de grace with the effect his music has on lighting a cigarette.

In the title role, Tim Roth ("Rob Roy," "Reservoir Dogs") creates a compelling and sympathetic character. Although 1900 definitely follows the beat of his own drummer -- or more accurately, metronome -- and behaves in ways that are often maddening to audiences (by not doing what they know he should and want him to do), Roth plays him in such a convincing fashion that you can't help but be drawn to his performance.

As his friend who tries to find him before his phobia of dry land may kill him, Pruitt Taylor Vince ("Dr. Dolittle," "Nobody's Fool") does a decent job although his rapidly shifting eyes prove to be something of a distraction. Clarence Williams III ("Life," TV's "The Mod Squad") is believable as the pianist who competes with 1900, while newcomer Melanie Thierry makes quite an impression in a brief role as 1900's love interest.

What with the great visuals, wonderful music and decent performances, the film is easy enough to watch. Nevertheless, this touching story of a man who by his own choice, lets the world pass him by and ultimately controls his own destiny, doesn't emotionally connect with the audience as well as it should. In addition, Tornatore's symbolism -- of why 1900 won't leave the ship -- gets a bit heavy-handed at times and isn't always convincing or, for that matter, even comprehensible.

Nonetheless, those who like highly visualized and intriguing tales probably won't be disappointed with what this film offers. Although it's not as good as it could have been with a little creative tightening and a little more plot, the fact that it slowly works its magic over the audience makes it a decent effort. We give "The Legend of 1900" a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed November 12, 1999 / Posted November 24, 1999

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