'The Song of Names' mixes coming-of-age story with off-key mystery

  • Polish-born Jewish violin prodigy Dovi (Luke Doyle), left, is brought to London to live with Martin (Misha Handley) and his family during World War II in "The Song of Names."

    Polish-born Jewish violin prodigy Dovi (Luke Doyle), left, is brought to London to live with Martin (Misha Handley) and his family during World War II in "The Song of Names." Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Posted1/24/2020 6:00 AM

"The Song of Names" -- ★ ½

"The Song of Names" opens with a disappearance. Or perhaps "no-show" is a better term, since the 1951 vanishing act that sets the stage for this mostly London-set mystery -- which jumps backward to World War II and then forward to 1986 -- is by a character we haven't yet met, and won't, except in flashbacks, until very late in the film. When he finally does show up, in the guise of Clive Owen with a bad fake beard and a doleful expression, it's a deflating, off-key letdown that spoils the serviceable setup that came before.


The character in question is Dovidl Rapoport, who in 1951 is a 20-something, Polish-born violin prodigy (Jonah Hauer-King) about to deliver his debut performance on the international stage in front of a London audience. That doesn't happen, for reasons that are withheld -- with a fair degree of suspense -- for quite a while. Much of the film leapfrogs from that inciting incident to A) fill in the back story of how Dovi, as he's called, arrived at that fateful moment, and B) unravel the complex legacy of his strange and sudden retirement.

Based on a 2001 book by music critic and cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht, who won the Whitbread Award for this debut novel of Jewish identity and faith, the story does an admirable job of telling two stories. The first charts Dovidl's friendship with an English boy of the same age named Martin (Misha Handley), whose family takes in Dovi (Luke Doyle) after his Jewish parents bring him to London -- in search of both musical training and an escape from the growing threat of the Nazis back in Warsaw. The second thread concerns the search by the now-grown Martin (Tim Roth) for his childhood friend, after certain clues materialize, 35 years after the non-concert, suggesting that Dovi may not have evaporated into thin air.

It's only when these two narratives -- the first a compelling coming-of-age chronicle, and the second a more prosaic whodunit -- converge that they squeeze the life out of the story in the middle.

The better part of "Song" concerns Dovi and Martin from the age of 9 to their early 20s, when the infamous concert looms. As they endure the Blitz as children -- the excitement of the bomb shelter, the otherworldly destruction that's almost a playground to them -- the fate of Dovi's family back home makes the stakes of war horrifyingly clear. This shakes Dovi's faith, which he likens to a coat: one he can don -- or remove -- as he chooses.

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But the question of whether identity -- ethnic, religious, artistic -- is something that can be so lightly worn and so easily discarded is not well-articulated in this film by François Girard. With his résumé ("The Red Violin" and other music documentaries), it's no surprise that the scenes involving music are the most powerful. The first shows Dovi and another young violinist communicating wordlessly, with their instruments, as they wait out the bombs. And the second, which explains the film's title, shows a rabbi singing a list of names of Jews killed in the Holocaust, memorized as a mournful "song."

Despite these moments of beauty, "The Song of Names" just doesn't work as a whole. What may have been effective on the page -- the novel's rumination on the power and failure of art in the face of the Holocaust -- gets drowned out by the melody of a conventionally plotted yet ultimately un-thrilling thriller. In the end this "Song" -- whose payoff may leave you thinking, "Are you kidding me?" -- doesn't so much crescendo as collapse in on itself, an orchestral work that peters out in a trickle of silly, sour notes.

• • •

Starring: Tim Roth, Luke Doyle, Misha Handley, Jonah Hauer-King, Clive Owen

Directed by: François Girard

Other: A Sony Pictures Classics release. Rated PG-13 for language, brief sexual material, mature thematic elements and smoking. 113 minutes

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