The film begins on January 1, 1900, the birth of a new century. Danny Boodman (Bill Nunn), who shovels coal in the ship's belly, discovers an abandoned infant lying inside a lemon crate in the first-class section of the steamer. He secretly raises the boy, naming him Danny Boodman T.D. Lemon 1900, although everyone takes to calling him simply "1900." The child never leaves the ship -- which ferries well-heeled passengers to and from Europe in elegant style while third-class immigrants crowd into steerage below, straining for their first glimpse of America -- and his only knowledge of life beyond the coal room is his porthole view of the sea.
1900's existence is revealed, and his continued presence on the ship threatened, when Boodman is involved in a tragic accident. However, the boy soon secures a permanent place for himself after wandering onto the first-class deck and finding a shipboard piano. Sitting down without any knowledge of music whatsoever, he somehow creates the most beautiful, haunting sounds imaginable. From that day on, he joins the boat's resident orchestra, growing into manhood onboard The Virginian, where he even finds himself in a pianists' duel with none other than Jelly Roll Morton, played by Clarence Williams III.
Told in flashback, 1900's story is narrated by Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a down-and-out trumpet player who had encountered 1900 when the two performed together in the orchestra. They had subsequently become best friends, and it is Max who repeatedly urges him to leave the ship and experience the real world (much of the story's tension thereafter derives from whether or not 1900 will ultimately follow his advice).
In the title role, Tim Roth is extraordinary, communicating the wide-eyed innocence and joyousness of 1900 as well as the instinctive sadness and inescapable loneliness that define him -- the result of twice being abandoned in life. Perfectly accepting of and content with his life, he evinces little curiosity about the larger world that exists beyond his shipboard domain, as he derives a strong sense of both freedom and security from his confined, protected environment. Roth's is a perfectly nuanced, deceptively simple performance, heartbreaking in its quiet intensity. Vince is less persuasive in his role as Max. A big hulk of a man, accustomed to the rough and tumble of life, Max is exactly the opposite of the refined, naive 1900. Unfortunately, the role of Max as written simply isn't as engrossing as the lead character, and he lacks the soulful quality that makes 1900 so heartrending and appealing.
The film is exquisite to look at, a masterpiece of color, shimmering light, texture, and movement, suggesting both dream and reality. Cinematographer Lajos Koltai, a frequent collaborator of Hungarian director Istvan Szabo's (they worked together on the Oscar-winning Mephisto), outdoes himself here in capturing the fablelike quality of the story, from the cerulean glass walls and glistening piles of coal in the boiler room to the fog that sweeps across the upper decks, at once enveloping and preserving a rarefied world of top hats and evening dres-ses, back when the century was still young.
Koltai is aided immeasurably in this task by production designer Francesco Frigeri, whose elaborate, theatrical sets never feel obtrusive or overdone. Additionally, the music is an integral part of the story: not only the soulful, classically inspired piano compositions that flow from 1900's fingers (looking at Roth playing the piano, you would swear he was a virtuoso; in fact the actor had never played before, and it is only thanks to the magic of modern technology that he appears to be doing so now), but also Ennio Morricone's jazz-tinged score, which reflects the spirit of an optimistic new era. Ultimate credit for the film's success, of course, rests with Tornatore, whose ability to tell a story is akin to a master artisan weaving a fine tapestry. There is a fragility to the story as well as a feeling of completeness, a sadness but also a sense of hope. On one level it is highly intimate, yet it is also universal, a modern metaphor for the human condition and the precariousness of life itself.