The 9-year-old violin prodigy Dovidl Rapoport is a genius—just ask him. His certainty on the subject is one of the less endearing qualities of the Jewish boy from Warsaw thrust into the home of a London family on the eve of World War II, especially to Martin, the disgruntled English lad forced to share a room with him. But the relationship that slowly develops between the two boys will have lifelong consequences for both of them in The Song Of Names.
Adapted from the novel by Norman Lebrecht by scriptwriter Jeffrey Caine, the story’s themes of music, life, loss, and redemption are a perfect fit for Canadian director Francois Girard. Known for such music-centric films as The Red Violin (which he co-wrote), and the gleefully experimental doc 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, Girard has also staged operas around the world and directed a couple of Cirque du Soleil shows. In his skilled hands, The Song of Names becomes an often-moving meditation on the purpose and privilege of artistic expression.
The story delivers its larger themes within a mystery plot. In 1951, 21-year-old Dov is about to make his international concert debut on the London stage. The house is stuffed full of celebrities, press, and royals, and anticipation is at a fever pitch. Martin (Gerran Howell) and his father (Stanley Townsend), the impresario staging the show, are pacing backstage. There’s only one problem: Dov is a no-show.
His father’s desperate plea “Go find him!” has evidently become a lifetime obsession; 35 years later, Martin (now played by Tim Roth) is still looking—to the grudging resignation of his wife, Helen (Catherine McCormack).
When Martin, judging a youth music competition, is struck by the way a young violinist rosins his bow, the trail heats up, leading to a London subway busker, a mystery woman in Warsaw, and a violin craftsman in New York City.
Sandwiched in between are flashbacks to the boys’ evolving relationship. They grow from the hostility of young Martin (Misha Handley) toward the imperious young Dov (Luke Doyle) into default brothers in youthful scrapes, against the increasingly dire backdrop of encroaching war. As Dov agonizes over the fate of his family in Poland, the Nazis begin bombing London (leading to a stirring scene in an air raid shelter where Dov, at one end of an aisle, and a teenage maestro at the other, distract and entertain the assembled crowd with their impromptu dueling violins.)
They are young men coming of age together in postwar Britain, where Dov (now played by the charismatic Jonah Hauer-King) has more reason than most to question his identity, now that the world of his childhood has been destroyed. With the fate of his family still unknown, and music the only constant in his life, he adopts a devil-may-care attitude that sometimes shocks Martin—as when Dov declares that ethnicity is something you’re born into for life, unlike religion, which “you can take off, like a coat.” It’s this tension between faith, fate and art that gives the movie its most haunting moments.
One detail of Dov’s disappearance doesn’t bear much scrutiny, and it’s not all that clear what Martin has been doing with himself for the intervening years besides searching for Dov. But the movie is an audio feast for violin aficionados; virtuoso Ray Chen plays for Owen and Hauer-King (although young Doyle does his own incredible playing). Daniel Mutlu plays violin for the original title song, composed by Howard Shore. And the twining threads of music and remembrance weave a quiet spell.
THE SONG OF NAMES
*** (out of four)
With Tim Roth and Clive Owen. Written by Jeffrey Caine. From the novel by Norman Lebrecht. Directed by Francois Girard. A Sony Classics release. Rated PG-13. 113 minutes.