Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Based on the 2002 Norman Lebrecht novel, “The Song of Names” is the type of festival entry and Oscar wannabe that dresses itself in different packaging in the hopes you won’t see there’s little worth discussing underneath the hood. “The Song of Names” is a respectful picture with depth (this is a Holocaust drama) and goes down like a cup of warm soup in that it’s not going to hurt you but if you’re looking for a deeper understanding of the themes presented (family, religion, and relationships) “The Song of Names” isn’t a compelling example. In fact, it’s a movie filled with poor storytelling techniques and a sloppy altering timeline narrative that even two strong performances from Tim Roth and Clive Owen can’t salvage the final product.
Francois Girard’s film begins in London, 1951, where Polish-Jewish violin prodigy Dovidl fails to take the stage for his own, heavily publicized, debut. His budding music career has been sponsored by music publisher Gilbert Simmonds (Stanley Townsed) and his son, Martin (Misha Handley) watches from the sidelines as his father is forced to cancel the performance. Martin never sees or hears from Dovidl again until a lifetime later when a series of findings leads him on a lengthy cross-country journey through Europe and America to find the once praised violinist.
This odyssey initiates an awkward flashback structure that transitions between two shifting timelines, and slowly unravels how and why Dovidl arrived in the Simmonds’s household during World War II to begin with. Dovidl (Luke Doyle) who prefers to go by David, is allowed a warm place to stay with the wealthy Simmonds as he’s separated from his family, and they soon discover his musical capabilities are well beyond that of an average nine-year old. At first, Martin is suspicious of this new intruder whose immense talent proves annoying and special religious circumstances confounding, but eventually the two mates bond over girls, music, and their views on faith.
Written by Jeffrey Caine, “The Song of Names” does a fine job of tapping into the suffering David dealt with, and making sure he’s a fully realized character with a clear purpose (especially as the film trots along to a climax that barley earns the right to go where it does). At times, the film captures the impulses and confused ideals children face when confronted with real tragedy, and Doyle and Handle have enough spunk to convey the wide array of emotions required of them.
But too often “The Song of Names” is a puzzle piece that’s hard to put in focus: shot with bleak colors and dim lighting, cinematographer David Franco fails to distinguish itself from other period dramas as of late, and the ‘40s and ‘50s London does little to excite the senses. Elsewhere, the films flashback component does the great Tim Roth a terrible disservice. As the present-day Martin, Roth’s character is used for exposition and to ask strangers where David disappeared too during his quest. The flashbacks also push the narrative into another tricky corner: Clive Owen is given no time to explore the older Dovidl as he’s only in the film for a minimal amount of time. The filmmakers expect us to drift into this world without asking questions, which is hard to do when Dovidl has been missing for almost four decades.
“The Song of Names” is watchable thanks to Oscar winner Howard Shore’s engrossing score, as it tries to elevate a rather old-fashioned drama stuck in glossy filmmaking techniques that rid the film of any flair of originality. Give credit to Owen and Roth who share a scene or two that highlight what the screenplay sets out to do. It won’t hurt to sit and watch “The Song of Names” but it's definitely not a film that’s going to resonate three or even two weeks from now.
The Song of Names opens Friday January 24th at The Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.