Film Review: The Song Of Names

Historical Drama Plucks At Heartstrings But Buries Tune

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
The Song of Names
“This one’s called ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia.’”
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French-Canadian filmmaker François Girard knows a thing or two about the intersection of movies and classical music, having directed Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach (1997) and The Red Violin (1998). His latest, The Song of Names, throws a bit of religion into the mix for good measure. While fitfully moving and occasionally profound, it is a concert whose prelude meanders on a bit too long, robbing the crescendo of its ultimate impact.

Based on the award-winning novel by cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht, the film starts by introducing us to Dovidl Rapoport, a virtuoso violin player from Poland who’s about to take the stage in London (circa 1950) in his first concert. Rapoport’s recordings have taken the classical music world by storm, and a sold-out crowd eagerly awaits his arrival. Much to the chagrin of London music publisher Gilbert Simmonds and his son Martin, who took Rapoport in in the days prior to World War II and have served as the young man’s adoptive family, Rapoport fails to show up. He does a runner, takes his violin and vanishes into thin air, never to be seen again.

Some 35 years later, a now middle-aged Martin Simmonds (Tim Roth), still flirting around the edges of the music business, is judging a talent show. One of the young hopefuls displays a signature move Martin recognizes as his long-lost friend Dov’s. This sets our protagonist adrift on a memory cruise, and the film plays along with a string of flashbacks.

We watch along as 9-year-old Jewish wonder Dovidl (played initially by Luke Doyle) arrives from Poland with his father, looking for a teacher willing to encourage his preternatural gift. Mr. Simmonds (Stanley Townsend) offers up his own home as a temporary base for young Dov when the boy’s father is forced to return to the rest of his family back in Poland. This news—particularly the prospect of sharing his bedroom with a strange foreign boy—rubs 9-year-old Martin (Misha Handley) the wrong way.

At first the cocky Dovidl and the less-talented-but-equally-competitive Martin are like enemy combatants. The boys eventually grow close and develop a genial sense of brotherhood, however. Unfortunately, the increasing threat of World War II strands Dov on the Simmonds’ doorstep permanently. When Hitler invades Poland, Dov’s family vanishes into the notorious Treblinka extermination camp and is never heard from again. Alternately devastated by the events of the Holocaust and carefully shielded from them in England, Dov grows up to be a troubled young genius and eventually chooses to renounce his Jewish faith. (“Ethics is the skin you live in, but religion is a coat you can take off when it gets too hot,” Dov blithely informs his brother from another mother.) Heading into young adulthood, Dov (played from 17 to 23 by Jonah Hauer-King) leans into his growing fame, reveling in booze, women and his own rapidly swelling ego. And then, one day, he disappears.

In between all of these flashbacks, we get modern-day grown-up Martin—firmly convinced that his adoptive brother is still alive—following a slim trail of clues across the globe. Along the way the film sweeps us from England over to Poland and ultimately across the pond to New York. There, Roth’s co-star Clive Owen finally shows up—somewhat oddly cast and looking nothing like the adrenalized star of
Shoot ’Em Up by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s somewhat unfortunate that
The Song of Names is structured like a highbrow, historically based mystery. Because it makes the film’s ending rather painfully anticlimactic. There is definite emotional weight to the story behind Dov’s disappearance. It contributes the film’s best scenes, building the story of a faith lost and found and touching on the brutal legacy of the Holocaust. But it’s really not worth all the mystery. There are ample reasons for our cocky young musician to evolve and change over time. But not a lot of reasons for him to vanish without explanation.

Unlike the seismic emotional gutpunch that was Girard’s sprawling, similarly string instrument-based mystery
The Red Violin, The Song of Names doesn’t really build up to much of anything. Girard’s latest musical detective story plays out far more like 1983’s “hunt for a missing rock star” drama Eddie and the Cruisers: low key and mildly diverting but with a great soundtrack.

Roth, a fine actor, comes across as mostly flat here, ticking off the boxes of his cross-continental quest like finishing a shopping list. Owen, when he finally does show up, feels similarly repressed. Neither of them is required to do much acting, as all of the film’s emotions are bottled up in a tiny handful of its flashbacks.

Those interested in stories of love, family, forgiveness and faith—particularly of the Jewish persuasion—will certainly be swayed by the backstory provided here. It’s a lulu. But
The Song of Names gets lost somewhere in its construction, working far too hard to deliver an emotional payoff that should have been immediate and effortless.
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