The Legend of 1900 (review)

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Piano Man

(Best of 1999)

I won’t be surprised to soon hear female moviegoers professing to be madly in love with Tim Roth. 1900 — yes, that’s a name — is the kind of movie character with whom women fall madly in love, and infatuation like that invariably spills over onto the actor portraying him. Not bad for a guy whose career has mostly been spent playing hoodlums and heavies.

At the turn of the twentieth century, an abandoned baby is discovered on the ocean liner Virginian, found in the first-class dining room by a coal-room worker (Bill Nunn) scrounging for lost valuables. He decides to raise the child himself and christens the baby Danny Boodman T.D. Lemons 1900 (after himself, the fruit crate in which the baby was lying, and the year of his birth). 1900 to everyone else, the child grows up in the bowels of the ship, surrounded by a large and loving surrogate family, making endless journeys between Europe and America, never leaving the ship and entirely unknown to the outside world.
Municipal records of his birth and life may not exist, but 1900 left a lasting impression on at least one person. After the end of World War II, a down-and-out trumpet player, Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince: Mumford, The End of Violence) wanders in a music store in London, where he discovers a piano recording performed by 1900, which shouldn’t exist. 1900 never set foot on land and they don’t make records onboard ships, do they? Max says, and goes on to tell the store owner (Peter Vaughan: Horatio Hornblower: The Wrong War, An Ideal Husband) — and us — the story of 1900.

“Entirely against the regulations,” the eight-year-old 1900 wanders into the Virginian‘s ballroom late one night and spontaneously begins playing the piano. By the time Max joins the ship’s band in the 1920s, the adult 1900 (Roth) has established his reputation as a prodigy who plays “music that’s never been heard before” (indeed, the score, composed by Ennio Morricone, is spectacular).

Simultaneously innocent and sophisticated — sheltered from the larger world yet meeting it, with each voyage the Virginian makes, 2000 people at a time — 1900 is an enigmatic figure, and Tim Roth gives the performance of a lifetime. Mild-mannered and almost painfully shy away from the piano, Roth lets all of 1900’s passion, for music and for life, fly when he sits down to the keys. Whether 1900, wild with glee, is breaking into impromptu improv jazz on his grand piano during a sedate set with the ballroom band, or finds himself so taken with the beauty of a young immigrant girl (Mélanie Thierry) that she inspires him to compose — on the fly, on a battered old upright piano in a steerage hold — a hauntingly beautiful melody, Roth is hypnotic. He is at his most effective, in fact, in almost wordless scenes, as during his heated piano duel with jazz great Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III), when 1900 switches from tears of joy at Morton’s transcendent music to fiery indignation at Morton’s arrogance. And when 1900 makes his first — and last — attempt to leave the Virginian, the conflicting emotions crossing Roth’s expressive face as he stands halfway down the gangplank tell us much more about his bewilderment at the size of the world than any dialogue could.

It’s almost impossible not to fall in love with 1900 when you recognize that he is the perfect metaphor for us today. We’re meant to believe that the world has gotten smaller, with global telecommunications and cheap, fast air travel, but actually those technologies just make an individual person’s world much bigger. While the world of my great-grandparents (in 1900’s time) was limited to not much more than the neighborhood in which they lived and the daily newspaper covered mostly just the city around them, I can maintain ties with friends and family on several continents and am bombarded with urgent news from around the globe. 1900 is able to break the world into 2000-people chunks and can watch it all pass by him from the safe confines of the Virginian. We today haven’t quite figured out how to do that yet. But that we recognize 1900’s confusion only makes him more endearing.

The Legend of 1900 is a movie to fall in love with, as well. Written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (based on a play by Alessandro Baricco), the film has a touch of the fantastical about it. In the overwhelming scene that opens the movie, we watch the heartbreaking joy of immigrants cheering at the sight of a very painterly Statue of Liberty looming over the Virginian. It’s not meant to be a realistic depiction of the landmark but rather to convey the emotional impact of the moment on the would-be Americans.

But the most wonderful scene in The Legend of 1900 is when Max, and the audience, first meets the grown-up 1900. A storm is tossing the Virginian violently about. 1900, strolling effortlessly around, shows the desperately seasick Max, who can’t keep to his feet, into the ballroom. While the huge chandelier sways above them and chairs are thrown about the ballroom, 1900, Max at his side, sits at his wheeled grand piano and plays while the piano rolls around the ballroom. My poor description does little justice to what is one of the most magical and imaginative movie sequences I’ve ever seen.

This is a glorious film. If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere near where it’s playing on a big screen (right now, that’s only New York and Los Angeles), don’t miss it.

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