The biggest problem with The Song of Names, in a film with many of them, is that it lacks a driving why behind any of the proceedings, anything to signal to an audience why on earth we should care about what’s unfolding on screen. Based on a novel by Norman Lebrecht, François Girard directs this overly wrought, listless drama (adapted by Jeffrey Caine) about a grown man seeking the Polish Jewish violinist who lived with his family in London during World War II only to disappear on the night of a post-war concert to showcase his talent.
Though the film is told mostly in flashbacks, Tim Roth and Clive Owen—two actors who deliver reliably strong performances despite the material they’re working with—play the grown men, Martin and Dovidl respectively, in the mid-’80s of the film’s present day. As World War II gets underway decades earlier, young Dovidl (Luke Doyle) auditions for young Martin’s (Misha Handley) father, who decides the boy has enough talent to warrant adopting him into their family in the face of growing anti-Semitism in his native Poland. Martin is having none of it, and is an unbearable brat to the young musician until, at some point he’s not and they’re friends as teenagers, even brothers (played by Gerran Howell and Jonah Hauer-King for this phase).
After Dovidl’s inexplicable no-show at a much-touted concert in 1951, Martin is left with nothing more than a name and memory of the person who once met so much to him. Thirty-five years later, while judging a local music competition, one of the student’s gestures before playing reminds him of his old friend and sends him on a path to track down the man who fell off the radar. What we come to learn is that Dovidl returned to the faith he was raised with, deeply damaged by the loss of family and community during the Holocaust. It all culminates in a full-circle moment that the film hasn’t earned in any way at all. We’re meant to believe that Martin is obsessed with finding Dovidl and Dovidl is obsessed with not being found, but there’s never a chance to understand why that would be the case for either. The narrative takes a particularly melancholy turn as it traces Dovidl’s life after the war, and though the film’s titular scene, where a rabbi sings out the names of those in Dovidl’s family who died at the hands of the Nazis, elicits sympathy, it never delivers the significant impact for which it aims. We’ve never met these people, we know nothing of the connection between Dovidl and any of them other than that they’re related.
In the end, though the novel about these men who were once so close and now navigate their path back to each other may be a page-turner, the film is anything but. More powerful, more meaningful and much better written stories of this era exist and are far more worth your time.
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