In the moving drama “The Song of Names,” a British man searches for his childhood best friend 35 years after the Jewish Polish violin prodigy vanished on the eve of his concert debut. This glossy, beautifully shot drama starring Tim Roth and Clive Owen is filled with glorious music and ends up as a moving tale of identity, faith and remembrance of those lost in the Shoah.
Unfortunately, it takes a while to get there, bringing us on a rambling detective tale that jumps among three time periods and three pairs of actors to play the main characters as boys, older teens and adults. Still, “The Song of Names” is filled with beautiful classical music and strong performances, and it crystalizes in an emotional tale.
Canadian director François Girard, whose films include “The Red Violin” and “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould,” adapted classical music critic Norman Lebrecht’s novel for the big screen. With a score by Howard Shore, “The Song of Names” is a music lovers dream.
Young violin prodigy Dovidl Rapaport is brought to London by his father, Zygmunt (Jakub Kotynski), to audition for British music publisher/impressario Gilbert Simmonds (Stanley Townsend). Impressed with the boy’s talent, Simmonds offers to take him in when Dovidl’s father returns to Warsaw, where the family lives.
Even though Simmonds is not Jewish, he makes every effort to accommodate the young prodigy, having him share a room with his son Martin, adopting a kosher diet for his family and arranging for Hebrew lessons to prepare Dovidl for his bar mitzvah.
Then Hitler invades Poland, leaving Dovidl to wonder about the fate of his parents and two sisters.
While young Martin at first resents the newcomer, over time the boys become like brothers. But Dovidl, haunted by questions about what became of his family, displays a rebellious streak and lashes out. In 1951, as he is about to make his make his highly anticipated solo debut before a crowd in a London concert hall, he mysteriously vanishes.
Thirty-five years later, a clue about his long-lost childhood friend sends Martin (Tim Roth) on a long-delayed search. However, the clue that launches that search actually seems rather thin, so it’s puzzling that Martin would drop everything to pursue that and other equally far-fetched clues. In one case, a street musician tells Martin that Dovidl told him he was going to Poland to “sing to the ashes,” which sends Martin off to Warsaw. That such a lead goes anywhere seems a stretch.
Yet the film’s stylish beauty and the actors’ sincerity make you want to pull for the film to come together. Just as you begin to despair that will happen, the drama makes a sudden turn with the appearance of Owen as the adult Dovidl. Suddenly, all is made clear and the film opens up new themes of faith and identity lost and found.
The strengths of this film are fine production values, excellent acting and the music. Luke Doyle, who plays the youngest version of Dovidl, gives a solid dramatic performance and plays some of the music with real fire.
Much of the film focuses on Roth as the adult Martin, whose finely tuned performance as a man filled with complex emotions capitulates with a moving burst in one scene in particular. His scenes with Owen propel the film out of the doldrums of its unfocused start and into a searing drama.
Owen and Roth are so riveting in their scenes together, it is almost worth the long wait for this payoff. However, having opened the door to many intriguing ideas about how best to remember those lost in the Shoah, the film does not really explore those avenues as fully as it might.
Still, the story is moving, the acting remarkable and the music glorious, which makes “The Song of Names” worth waiting out its wobbly start.