The work of two classical music mavens collides as Québécois director François Girard adapts commentator-turned-novelist Norman Lebrecht’s The Song of Names for the screen. Those who haven’t haunted the symphony in a while need not feel intimidated as this story of the holocaust and its effects on a young violin prodigy and his best friend provides ample storytelling muscle.
In 1980s London, musical academic Martin (Tim Roth) has finally caught wind of his long lost best brother-from-another-mother Dovidl Rapoport (Clive Owen) who failed to show for his breakout concert some 35 years prior. This lead to Martin’s father (Stanley Townsend) going bankrupt and dying from heartbreak at the apparent loss of his adopted son. Needless to say, Martin wants answers for Dovidl’s sudden and unexplained departure.
As his search takes him from Warsaw to New York, we are treated to flashbacks of our leads as boys (Misha Handley & Luke Doyle) and young men (Gerran Howell & Jonah Hauer-King). Despite an initial hostile culture clash, the two bond under the spectre of WWII and a shared love of music. It’s when the burden and grief over the uncertain fate of Dovidl’s family become too much for the young man that their bond begins to unravel and may prove key to the reason for the prodigy’s disappearance. In any case, he’ll owe the world a concert when Martin finally catches up to him.
Any fan with Girard’s previous work will be at home here as he continues to dwell among the strains of classical music, echoing Boychoir, The Red Violin and Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. This is my first exposure to the director and while the premise failed to entice me to a screening at VIFF last year, I was pleasantly moved by this tale of generational pain and our collective human need for closure.
Names scores exceptionally well in the crucial casting of three generations of the same character and for the most part, all six pull their weight. Given the plot, Owen has the least amount of screen time, but makes the most of it as the aged Dovidl. The burden of the years and associated turmoil nearly weigh him into the ground and it shows in the slightest gaze. Roth fares decently as adult Martin although given the story’s circumstances, gives a curiously reserved performance until his Oscar-bait clip shows up (you’ll know when you see it).
The layers of the script are beautifully rendered as cinematography, editing, art direction and crucially score work their wonders in unison. Both Martin and Dovidl are suffering from a loss and the need for closure permeates the narrative. It may not be a clean ending in store for them, but it feels right just the same.
The Song of Names might prove an even richer experience for those better versed in musical theory or in holocaust history and Jewish culture. But the core message is a universal one and any film that communicate that is worth viewing.
The Song of Names is currently screening at theatres across Canada