THE SONG OF NAMES – Review
People today (well always but more so now) really enjoying having lots of choices, be it food (as in buffets and food courts) or in entertainment. And with the latter, we’re talking the multiplex which often presents several types of films, or genres if you want to sound “fancy-schmancy’, from comedies to family flicks, to, well, this week’s unique mix. That’s because this new film is tough to “pin down”, so it may be a multiplex in itself. It’s a musical (in a way), an historical drama, a mystery, a look at faith and religion, and a “coming of age” buddy film (perhaps close to that more modern flick, the “bromance”). Somehow all those themes and elements come together in the film strangely named THE SONG OF NAMES.
It all begins with a flashback to 1951. It’s moments before the big debut of 21-year-old violin virtuoso David Rapoport at a London concert hall. But the concert producer, classical music impresario Gilbert Simmonds (Stanley Woodward) is worried. The hall is packed but the star is missing. His young son Martin shares his concern as he can’t locate his childhood pal. Finally a crestfallen Gilbert takes the stage to cancel the event. Flash forward 35 years as the now middle-aged Martin (Tim Roth) bids goodbye to wife Helen (Catherine McCormack) as he travels to judge auditions for a prestigious music academy (he’s following in his father’s footsteps). A young violinist grabs his attention when he uses a rosin ball on his bow, then gently kisses it before beginning to play, a ritual he recalls David doing. Later Martin asks the young musician whether he had a special tutor or teacher. This sets Martin on a globe-trotting quest to find David, whom he’s not seen since that fateful concert “no-show”. As he begins his travels, his mind drifts farther back to his first meeting with David in the later 1930’s. Then called Dovidl (Luke Doyle), the pompous prodigy (“I am genius”) auditions for Gilbert in his Whitecastle home, accompanied by father Zygmunt Rappaport (Jakub Kotynski). They can’t afford a fancy school, but Gilbert agrees to take in Dovidl and raise him in the Jewish traditions (foods, fashions, etc.) while his papa returns to the family in Warsaw, hoping he can protect them from the increasingly aggressive forces out of Nazi Germany. This irks young Martin (Misha Handley), but the clashing personalities eventually mesh almost into brothers. Their friendship survives the great war, the bombing raids, and the teen years as Martin (Gerran Howell) becomes a manager to the talented artist, now known as David (Jonak Hauer-King). When Martin does track him down, David, now Dovidl once more (Clive Owen), reluctantly agrees to a “make-up” concert. But will he really perform? And just what sent him away all those years ago?
In a rare leading role the always compelling Mr. Roth brings a focused intensity to the single-minded Martin. Equal parts detective and reporter he brings a dogged determination to his quest, never letting a stern “No!” or a slammed door deter him. In contrast, he’s the ideal husband while on his “home turf”. Fortunately, Roth has a couple of excellent scene partners, especially with Owen as the middle-aged Dovidl, though he doesn’t appear until the beginning of the film’s third and final act. He’s somber and more than a bit melancholy though he refuses to apologize for his past actions while agreeing to “put things right” as a tribute to his late surrogate father, Martin’s dad. He still has a fierce pride in his talent which Owen hints at as he seems to go into a “trance” when he creates near-magical melodies with his strings. Roth’s home-based “rock’ is McCormack as wife Helen who supports her hubby completely, but can’t quite hide her still smoldering anger for Dovidl. Townsend brings a quiet dignity to the warm, nurturing father to the lads, Gilbert. And while he remains a professional at that concert, his sad eyes can’t hide his heartbreak. As the younger versions of the leads, Doyle really projects annoying egomania as young Dovidl, while Hauer-King brings a rebellious “bad boy” vibe to teen David. Handley, as nine-year-old Martin, pouts and taunts but finally bonds while Howell as his young adult self is all-business while advising his “brother” to loosen up (a suggestion he’d come to regret). Plus the film treats us to terrific cameos by screen vets Eddie Izzard and Saul Rubinek as a BBC radio announcer and an NYC violin expert, respectively.
Director Frances Girard is no stranger to the world of classical music, having helmed THE RED VIOLIN and THIRTY-TWO SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD, so the scenes of Dovidl performing are the film’s big highlights (or like stunts in an action flick). Much of the credit there must also go to the great Howard Shore for his exquisite original score. Unfortunately the film loses focus for the rest of the runtime as it haphazardly bouncing back between pre-1951 and the modern, late 1980s era, with certain side trips that have little dramatic “pay-off”. It doesn’t help that Martin, aside from his quest, just isn’t an interesting well-rounded character. On the other hand, his “brother” Dovidl is often abrasive and stubborn (stealing jewelry from bombing victims) while his adult self seems almost closed off emotionally (until he’s on stage). This all leads up to a final decision by him that seems nonsensical and somewhat selfish (to his new family). Wartime London is expertly recreated, from the fashions to the autos, but THE SONG OF NAMES is not a melody, or movie, that stays with you, despite the skills of those artists involved.
2 Out of 4
THE SONG OF NAMES opens everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinemas