Based upon the first novel by the popular English journalist and music critic Norman Lebrecht, The Song of Names arrives at a time when it's undeniable that anti-semitism is on the rise. The film wears this importance on its sleeve, though it doesn't always live up to that importance in this rather generic, fictionalized story that is more intellectually stimulating than emotionally resonant.
The Song of Names begins in 1939, nine-year-old Dovidl is a Jewish violin prodigy from Warsaw whose father has sent him to London and he has been welcomed into the home of a music impresario whose similarly aged son, Martin, isn't initially quite so welcoming. Of course, things change and the two young boys becoming fast friends and eventually something resembling brothers. Dovidl's parents perish while in Treblinka and it is apparent now that Dovidl is one of the family. In 1951, Dovidl is on the verge of his grand concert debut that has been arranged at great risk and expense by Martin's father when he suddenly disappears on the night of the concert.
Decades letter, Martin remains determined to discover the answer to this great mystery both due to familial obligations and a festering desire for revenge at the betrayal of his father.
In Lebrecht's novel, the story jumps between 1938, 1951, and 1985. This cinematic version generally sticks to the timeline, though there's some minor variation that seems aimed at enhancing the film's sense of urgency. The two main characters, Martin and Dovidl, are played by three different actors over the time periods, an approach that makes director Francois Girard's heavy leaning on flashback sequences more palatable and less confusing.
Dovidl (Luke Doyle, aged 9-13; Jonah Hauer-King, aged 17-23; Clive Owen) is an impossible to like young man with an occasional playfulness that humanizes him against his usual state of arrogance and condescension. He is a traumatized young, of course, once news of his parents perishing arrives yet his scenes of grief often feel histrionic and misplaced in their suddenness.
Martin (Misha Handley, aged 9-13; Gerran Howell, aged 17-21; Tim Roth) often feels like your classic shadow child, formerly the center of his parents' focus, with Dovidl's arrival he often feels, justifiably or not, as if he has been relegated to the shadows. He aspires to please his father, yet it's always undeniable that he is significantly less talented than Dovidl and also less brash and exciting. Martin's personality is portrayed understatedly throughout the film including, somewhat surprisingly, by Roth himself. In the book, Martin is also Jewish. In the film, Martin is not.
The Song of Names will prove unsatisfying for many as the film simply never lives up to the importance of its material. The dramatic arc feels forced and, adding to this dilemma, the performances among each character's trio of actors are inconsistent tonally and in terms of dramatic impact. Largely basing itself within Lebrecht's novel, The Song of Names is an intelligent film that barely registers an emotional note with the exception of one riveting, emotionally charged and simply extraordinary scene that won't be described here as it simply needs to be experienced. To be honest, I would watch the film again simply to watch that scene again.
While The Song of Names is undeniably flawed, it's a film worthy of your time and it's a film that should be seen on a bigger screen if possible if only to be immersed into the lush, enveloping score of Howard Shore that practically becomes a character unto itself. The Song of Names is the first feature film to ever be granted approval for filming on the actual site of Treblinka and the film reverently approaches that task with a solemness that is palpable. It was originally intended to have an actual scene play out during the Treblinka filming, yet once onsite it was decided, appropriately so, that the setting said all that needed to be said.
The Song of Names possesses that sort of reverence throughout, though perhaps it never digs as deeply as one might like in attaching itself to the core of why that reverence is so important. The film is clearly making a statement against anti-semitism, yet does so without communicating that statement in a way that will reach the wider audience it so clearly wants to reach.
For a film grounded in a certain degree of suspense, The Song of Names ultimately resolves that suspense rather quickly. Martin's years-long lack of resolution seeems rather quickly resolved once he decides to actually resolve it, while Jeffrey Caine's script ultimately struggles to convincingly hit all the major notes of Lebrecht's novel effectively. The script isn't a failure, far from it, but it occasionally feels unsatisfyingly abrupt and never quite gives us the opportunity to truly connect with characters whose stories are worthy of connection.
Tim Roth gives a satisfyingly understated performance as the elder Martin, a man whose entire life has been marked by Dovidl's disappearance. Roth is seen periodically throughout the film, while Owen's immensely satisfying if somewhat inexplicable performance is left for the film's end to provide resolution that never really resolves. There's a tonal inconsistency toward the end, I'd dare say it almost feels like a Mr. Holland's Opus moment, that feels unearned yet sometimes these moments are unearned.
Your ability to connect with The Song of Names may very well depend upon how much you connect with its underlying roots, a rich history of Judaism and an almost genetic awareness of what it means for the flow of one's life. If you understand these roots, or even simply resonate with them, then you will be more likely to be able to fill in the gaps left by Caine's script and, at times, by Girard's reverent and respectful storytelling.
Having debuted at TIFF, The Song of Names is now on an arthouse theatrical run with Sony's indie distribution arm, Sony Classics.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic