The Song of Names
Starring Tim Roth, Clive Owen, Jonah Hauer-King, Gerran Howell, Eddie Izzard, Catherine McCormack
Filmmaker François Girard (The Red Violin) is interested in music first, film second, and history third. His latest The Song of Names, like all his work, combine those three elements, this time into a familiar WWII film. The Song of Names also functions somewhat as a coming of age story, or at least it’s flashbacks. Intentionally or not, Girard uses the same cinematic framework as Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s WWII mystery Sarah’s Key (2010). Indeed stories that have present characters, reliving their past, to uncover a mystery is a particular style of storytelling seen for generations. The Song of Names is obviously based on a novel, it’s cinematic adaptation takes no steps to hide that classification in the editing. The set-up, before London is devastated by air raids, and the rousing conclusion, are two absorbing bookends to a rather lackluster midsection.
In 1951, Martin (Howell) rehearsed with his older adopted brother Dovidl (King), an extremely talented violinist, before the concert that would have changed London’s music scene forever. Following their rehearsal, Dovidl disappeared, devastating Martin and his father, who poured all their financial resources into giving the boy who lost everything in the war a future. 35 years later Martin (Roth) still can’t reconcile what happened that night, why Dovidl disappeared or if something tragic happened. He picks up the search again, traveling back to Dovidl’s home town of Warsaw, in search of clues from the past to track down an explanation that will provide some peace of mind.
Aside from it’s conventional nature, The Song of Names is also a bit obvious.
Due to the story spanning such a long period of time, three sets of actors portray Martin and Dovidl over the course of the film. Howell and King particularly reinforce the grown up versions with their performances. The casting director deserves praise for finding young actors that could believably mature into Owen and Roth. Where Song of Names likely works better as a novel is the middle section of the movie. For over 45 minutes Roth’s character is on screen going door to door, hunting for clues. Girard relies on the more compelling flashbacks to fill this time, but it still comes across monotonous. When the musical catharsis kicks in during the finale, Girard’s motivations for bringing the book to life is clear, he just doesn’t quite get the adaptation right, it shouldn’t feel like a visual copy of the book.
Oscar winning composer Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings) delivers his first new score since the disappointment The Catcher Was a Spy (2018). Even the legendary musician can’t fill in the gaps of what The Song of Names lacks. Girard’s approach is simply too familiar for a story that feels broadly routine in both theme and plot. Aside from it’s conventional nature, The Song of Names is also a bit obvious. As a viewer, you know from the trailer, poster or simple synopsis where the mystery ends, so the fact the narrative spends so much time with false suspense doesn’t do anyone any favors. The film is also from Martin’s point of view until the third act where Dovidl explains his circumstance. Perhaps a stronger juxtaposition between the two men would have played out better on screen or this is simply a novel that’s better served on the page.
Girard’s musically infused WWII drama struggles with familiarity and a tedious middle act.