The Legend Of 1900
Theatrical adaptations are always tricky. How much should be preserved?
How much should be lost? Should the play be "opened up"? Solo shows are even more difficult to translate successfully to film (see "Shirley Valentine").
Writer-director Guiseppe Tornatore, who gave the world the charming Academy Award-winning "Cinema Paradiso" and its equally delightful companion piece "The Star Maker," has taken on the daunting task of turning a sentimental monologue by Italian novelist Alessandro Barrico into a full-blown epic motion picture. That he has not been entirely successful doesn't mean that "The Legend of 1900" doesn't provide numerous delights. Rather, it points out the folly of taking a slight but effective stage piece and saddling it with too many metaphors.
'1900' refers not to the year but to a person, an abandoned baby found by a stoker (Bill Gunn) in the first-class ballroom of a transatlantic steamer. Deciding to keep the child, he christens him Danny Boodman T.D. Lemons 1900 ? a combination of his own name, the name on the crate in which the child was found and the year. Like a ghostly presence, 1900 (embodied as an adult by Tim Roth) is alive but doesn't really exist. After the accidental death of his adoptive father, 1900 manages to secure a place on the ship when he demonstrates his musical proficiency.
Tornatore, writing for the first time in English, frames the film with the awkward device of having a down-and-out musician (Pruitt Taylor Vince) recounting the story of 1900 to a shopkeeper who has managed to secure the only copy of a recording made by the pianist. While this allows the tale to unfold, it keeps the audience from connecting completely with 1900. It may have been the director's intention to keep him removed in that way, but it robs the film of an emotional payoff; because his life is filtered through Max, any crisis that the pianist faces is not as enthralling as it should be. Since much of this director's work has blended the sentimental with technical proficiency, this flaw is particularly glaring.
Still, there are visual moments that are extraordinarily poetic and memorable: 1900 and Max riding a grand piano around the ballroom during a violent storm; 1900 demonstrating his gifts by composing impromptu themes for various passengers; his tentative attempts at make conversation with a beautiful immigrant on her way to America; and, most impressively, a piano duel with Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III). While Tornatore deserves kudos for these moments, credit must also be shared with cinematographer Lajos Koltai and production designer Francesco Frigeri. The lush and memorable music was composed by Ennico Morricone.
Because the script contains flowery and stilted language, the performers are a bit hamstrung. Vince makes a fine impression as the narrator and Williams is suitably magisterial as Morton. In the most difficult role, Roth negotiates the emotional terrain well, and his quiet, solid screen presence helps overcome whatever deficiencies are in the script.
"The Legend of 1900" is a good yarn, though it might have fared better had it been recounted on a more intimate scale.
* MPAA rating: R, for language.
'The Legend of 1900'
Tim Roth: Novecento
Pruitt Taylor Vince: Max
Melanie Thierry: The Girl
Bill Nunn: Danny Boodmann
Noriko Aida: Mattress maker
A Fine Line Features presentation. Director Giuseppe Tornatore. Producer Francesco Tornatore. Executive producers Marco Chimenez, Laura Fattori. Screenplay Tornatore. Cinematographer Lajos Koltai. Editor Massimo Quaglia. Music Ennio Morricone, Roger Waters. Production design Francesco Frigeri. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.