It is a concert 35 years in the making, so it couldn’t help but be a bit disappointing.
And, indeed, when violin virtuoso Dovidl “David” Rapaport (played by Luke Doyle, Jonah Hauer-King and Clive Owen at different ages) finally takes the stage at the end of the stodgy historical drama “The Song of Names,” there is clearly something missing.
Jeffrey Caine writes of that final performance in his script:
“He (Dovidl) has performed to a high professional standard…Yet there’s something missing in his playing, and that something is feeling, the personal engagement of the artist’s soul which distinguishes the very good from the truly great.”
Dovidl’s final concert does eventually recover from that lack of feeling, but “The Song of Names” never does. For a film predicated on one of the greatest losses of life in human history, it is curiously muted and dramatically flat. You have to wonder just how director Francois Girard managed to find so little drama in the Holocaust. A compelling story is there on the page, but it never rises to the level of great drama on the screen. Indeed, it’s downright dull in places.
Perhaps this is a “biting off more than you can chew” situation for Girard, who is adapting a novel by Norman Lebrecht. After all, the film covers no less than 40 years starting when Jewish preteen violin prodigy Dovidl is adopted into the English Simmonds family during the German persecution of Jews in Poland.
The whole Simmonds family encourages Dovidl’s musical gift, but the prodigy forms an especially close bond with the eldest Simmonds child Martin (played at different ages by Misha Handley, Gerran Howell and Tim Roth).
The film jumps ahead to 1951 when Dovidl disappears without a trace before a concert and then jumps forward yet again to 1986 when a middle-aged Martin starts following some clues that he is convinced will lead him to his long-missing adoptive brother.
The 1986 portions of the film take on the form of a very slow-moving detective story, albeit with a disappointing absence of interesting twists and turns. It’s probably not giving much away to say that Martin eventually finds Dovidl, since Owen receives top billing in the credits along with Roth. Unfortunately, the road the film takes to the reunion isn’t especially inspired, and, at nearly two hours, it is much too long.
Still this could have worked, and I praise Girard for attempting to take a different view on the Holocaust – focusing not on the graphic horrors that people suffered in the concentration camps, but on the survivor’s guilt of those that were left behind.
But, in order for that to work, you have to have some top-shelf performances, and that’s where “The Song of Names” falters. The younger actors playing Dovidl and Martin simply don’t have the acting experience to do the dramatic heavy lifting required of them, and both Roth and Owen seem to exist somewhere on the spectrum between boredom and catatonia.
There’s little emotion in any of the lead performances, and that is absolutely what the film needed in order to work.
There are some nice supporting roles for great character actors like Stanley Townsend, Eddie Izzard and Saul Rubinek and a lovely score by three-time Academy Award winner Howard Shore of “Lord of the Rings” fame. But the slow-burning story and uninteresting leads don’t do “The Song of Names” any favors.
The film works well enough as a restrained introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust for older high schoolers. But anybody who has been around long enough to remember “Schindler’s List” or “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” or “The Book Thief” or, heck, even “Jojo Rabbit” will recognize that these same beats have been executed before, and better.
Like Dovidl in that final concert, “the Song of Names” (rated PG-13 for some strong language, brief sexual material, thematic elements and smoking) plays some familiar melodies, but the song just doesn’t connect with the heart.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.