Review: Tim Roth and Clive Owen star in ‘The Song of Names,’ a violin saga steeped in mystery
“The Song of Names,” adapted by Jeffrey Caine (“GoldenEye,” “The Constant Gardener”) from cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht’s award-winning 2002 novel, may be a fictional mystery-drama, but its story feels as real as many of the true-life, Holocaust-centric tales that have made their way to the screen, stage or page. It’s a profound, affecting and beautifully told chronicle of faith, family, obsession and the language of music.
Director François Girard is no stranger to movies involving music: He wrote and directed the singular 1993 biopic “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” and 1998’s Oscar-winning “The Red Violin” (best original score) plus helmed 2014’s “Boychoir.” The French Canadian filmmaker, aided immeasurably here by Academy Award-winning composer Howard Shore (“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”), has put his musical acumen to fine use to craft an absorbing and memorable portrait, a kind of requiem for a nightmare.
But don’t despair: Despite its many urgent, powerful and somber moments, the piece is ultimately about love and forgiveness, acceptance and redemption.
In the late 1930s, just before the start of World War II, London music publisher Gilbert Simmonds (Stanley Townsend) agrees to take in Dovidl Rapoport (Luke Doyle), a 9-year-old Jewish violin wonder from Warsaw, whose father, Zygmunt, wants to keep his gifted son safe and far away from the looming Nazi invasion of Poland. Zygmunt returns home to protect his wife and daughters, while the conceited but playful Dovidl (“I am genius!”) settles in with Gilbert, wife Enid (Amy Sloan) and their fussy son, Martin (Misha Handley), also 9.
After a rocky start, Martin and Dovidl become close friends, competitive and combative yet also deeply trusting and protective of each other. Dovidl’s violin expertise, nurtured by the generously supportive Gilbert, grows through his teenage years (where he’s played by Jonah Hauer-King), as does his brotherhood with Martin (now Gerran Howell). Meanwhile, Dovidl’s parents and sisters have never been heard from again and, though Dovidl presumes the worst, he maintains a sliver of hope.
But on the night of Dovidl’s 1951 London concert debut, a major event that has been riskily staged and financed by Gilbert, the now-21-year-old violinist is a no-show — and disappears. This is after a disillusioned Dovidl, in a powerful scene in a London synagogue, renounces his Judaism, deeming religion “a coat to be taken on and off.”
Flash forward to 1986 and the adult Martin (Tim Roth), now a music examiner married to his childhood sweetheart, the cynical Helen (Catherine McCormack), suddenly has reason to believe that Dovidl may have moved back to Poland in 1951. The tipoff: a signature gesture of Dovidl’s involving a violin bow and a lump of rosin that Martin witnesses in another young musical prodigy.
So off Martin goes to Warsaw on the start of a detective-like search — against Helen’s better judgment — to learn what became of the elusive Dovidl.
Clues mount up, including during a moving visit to the Treblinka memorial (on the site of the actual death camp) with a woman revealed to be Dovidl’s old girlfriend (Magdalena Cielecka). This sequence eventually leads Martin to New York where he comes face to face with Dovidl (Clive Owen, in an inspired bit of casting) who, suffice to say, has regained his love of Judaism big time.
It’s a painful, heartbreaking reunion that plays out throughout the film’s superb third act in a series of illuminating and surprising yet inescapable ways. Bring a handkerchief.
As for the book and movie’s title, it refers to a musical recitation of the names of all those who died at Treblinka. This stirring commemorative song (composed for the film by Shore, who echoes its elements elsewhere on the soundtrack) is chanted prayer-like and performed several times on violin. The work adds a unique and pivotal resonance to the story, both musically and thematically.
Also of note: Although Luke Doyle was already a skilled violinist, Hauer-King and Owen went through major training to look like real-deal virtuosos. Still, the film’s various violin pieces were actually performed by renowned Taiwanese Australian violinist Ray Chen. (The bomb shelter-set violin “duel” between young Dovidl and a fellow prodigy is one of several highlights.)
A few of the characters, including Helen and Enid, are a bit one-note, and the movie’s climactic, deeply felt concert is light on details (how exactly did it all come together in such a big way?). But this Canada-Hungary co-production, deftly shot by David Franco in Montreal, Budapest, London, Warsaw and Treblinka (“Song” is the first feature ever allowed to film at the memorial), remains among the better serious, adult-oriented films of this holiday season.