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THE LEGEND OF 1900

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Tim Roth, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Melanie Therry, Bill Nunn, Peter Vaughan, Niall O’Brien, Gabriele Lavia, Alberto Vazquez, Clarence Williams III
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Image
Features: Theatrical Trailer, Music Video
Length: 125 Minutes
Release Date: June 4, 2002

Film ***1/2

Director Giuseppe Tornatore has had no luck with United States distributors. His original cut of Cinema Paradiso was ruthlessly hacked to pieces by Miramax Films for its North American theatrical release. Now, a decade later, it's déjà vu. The Legend of 1900, Tornatore's first English-language film, has seen its 160-minute Italian running length shrunk to 123 minutes at the insistence of Fine Line Features. To Tornatore's credit, he has managed to keep the story mostly intact; there are only a few occasions when it starts to ramble. Having not seen the full version, it's difficult for me to say whether the uneven nature of the episodic structure is the result of removing 25% of the film's sequences, or whether that hiccup plagues the original as well.

The entire tale of The Legend of 1900 takes place aboard a cruise ship during the early decades of the 20th century. Told in flashback by a down-on-his luck trumpet player named Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the movie is presented as half-fable, half-melodrama. The main character, Danny Boodman T.D. Lemon 1900, or 1900 for short (played by Tim Roth), is found abandoned on board the ocean liner The Virginian by an engine room worker (Bill Nunn), who keeps him and gives him his name (based on the year of his birth). 1900 grows up to be an agoraphobe who never knows life outside the ship. He is a genius at the piano, and his reputation spreads far and wide across the globe, but he never leaves The Virginian to claim the slice of fame that could be his. Even love cannot lure him from the open sea. On one occasion, he falls for a pretty passenger (Melanie Thierry), but lacks the courage to follow her into the city when the ship docks. The Virginian was where he was born and where he intends to die

Tornatore has a talent for developing stories that are pleasantly sentimental without turning mawkish. Does The Legend of 1900 manipulate its audience? Of course it does, but Tornatore is a master at this craft, and it doesn't feel as if our heartstrings are being plucked by someone with no talent. The director has blended one part fantasy, one part whimsy, one part comedy, and one part drama into a whole that stirs the spirit. The Legend of 1900 is an uplifting experience - the kind of movie that can make a hardened movie-goer laugh and cry at the same time.

Tim Roth, as engaging as ever, brings 1900 to life, imbuing him with energy and charisma. Pruitt Taylor Vince plays an adequate second fiddle as 1900's best friend. Even though the movie is told from his point-of-view, however, Max is not fleshed out as anything more substantive than a narrator. Melanie Thierry offers viewers (and 1900) a pretty face to look at, but nothing more. The film's standout supporting role belongs to Clarence Williams III, who plays real-life jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton. In The Legend of 1900's standout sequence, Jelly Roll boards the ship to challenge 1900 to a piano duel. The smokin' results are pure magic.

Production-wise, The Legend of 1900 is virtually flawless. Cinematographer Lajos Koltai fashions numerous gorgeous sequences that heighten the viewer's sense of watching something enchanting. Cruises, by their very nature, are divorced from the mundane routine of day-to-day life, but The Legend of 1900 has a truly un-real feel to it. This is a fantasy and a tall tale - the kind of thing that could never happen, but that we have no trouble accepting in a well-crafted motion picture. The movie's score, by veteran composer (and longtime Tornatore collaborator) Ennio Morricone, effectively compliments Koltai's keen visual sense.

In terms of using scenery to enhance the emotional aspect of storytelling, The Legend of 1900 is pure magic.

Video ***

Image Entertainment favors the look of this movie very nicely with this acceptable video transfer. The film is filled with numerous images that defy description, and these scenes standout enormously. The only slight flaw in the presentation are a couple instances of noticeable grain, but that withstanding this is a mostly glorious presentation.

Audio ***1/2

This film is loaded with some truly glorious music pieces, since of course the film’s central character is a flawless piano player, and when these scenes come into play, this 5.1 presentation makes the film’s power come truly alive. When the film isn’t playing with music, the movie is mostly embroiled with dialogue, so this disc gets a much deserved extra piece of credit for evoking luminous power in the music numbers.

Features **

A trailer is included, as well as a music video for “Lost Boys Calling” by Roger Waters and Eddie Van Halen.

Summary:

Filled with luscious music pieces and another outstanding performances from one of our finest actors, Tim Roth, The Legend of 1900 is a film for true art lovers, as well as those who appreciate haunting storytelling.