'The Song of Names' Is a Both a Powerful War Drama and a Clumsy Mystery Directed by François Girard
Starring Clive Owen, Tim Roth, Catherine McCormack, Jonah Hauer-King, Gerran Howell, Luke Doyle, Misha Handley
Published Mar 18, 2020"The Song of Names" refers to a mournful Jewish prayer, a days-long recitation of names of Holocaust victims set to music. As the basis for the film adaptation of Norman Lebrecht's novel of the same name, it inspires powerfully emotional moments — but these get bogged amid a jumble of timelines and stiffly acted period drama.
The film jumps back and forth between decades as it examines the mysterious disappearance of Dovidl Rapoport, aka David. He's a virtuosic Polish violinist who moves to England as a child, but World War II leaves him separated from his Jewish family back home. He's touted as a rising classical music star, but after he skips out on a pivotal concert in 1951, he's never heard from again.
Flash forward to the 1980s, and his adoptive English brother Martin (Tim Roth) is still hunting for the lost violinist. He follows a series of leads and gradually traces Dovidl's journey across continents. It's not too much of a spoiler to say that Martin eventually finds him — something you know from the get-go, thanks to Clive Owen's prominent billing playing Dovidl as an adult.
The hunt for Dovidl comes together a little too cleanly, as each clue ties neatly to the next, so that the whole thing fits together like a scavenger hunt, or perhaps a Nancy Drew novel. Throw in some dubious Polish accents, plus stiff performances all around, and the film doesn't achieve the gravity the subject matter demands.
Finally, things do come together in an emotional, climatic scene that highlights the harrowing toll that the Holocaust has had on Dovidl. It's a powerful payoff for the film's mystery. But then there's a final, out-of-nowhere revelation that leaves things on an off-putting note. It's strange end to a movie with a powerful premise and clumsy execution.