A clever film that rewards close watching

Review by Ben Reeves

A controversial music critic’s novel adapted by a celebrated theatre man… the music lovers in the audience must be tuning their instruments in anticipation.

The film The Song of Names opens on the night of a big concert in 1952, while the guests gather around Martin and his family worry. The star of the show, his adopted Jewish younger brother Dovidl, hasn’t showed and the performance is cancelled.

35 years later Martin notices a young student perform, with an intimate handling of his violin, just as Dovidl had done when he met him, the day Martin’s family had taken in Dovidl to grow his talents and protect him from the start of WWII. It was a day when, the film reveals, Dovidl would see his father for what would turn out to be the last time. Following on this piece of evidence, Martin embarks on a quest to find his missing brother, while reflecting on the life they shared together.

Song of Names is the eighth film from French-Canadian theatre director Francois Girard, adapted from the novel of the same name by classical music critic Norman Lebrecht, author of 12 other books discussing music. The film’s screenplay adaptation was handled by British actor/writer Jeffrey Caine, who was previously nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for another book adaptation The Constant Gardener; h e also plays a minor role in The Song of Names. The Canadian born Howard Shore served as composer for the film: he is, of course, famous asthe composer of the award-winning scores for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies.

Song of Names official trailer

The film unfolds like a mystery, always revealing some new piece of information or expanding upon it. What truly makes Song of Names stand out is how every reveal ends up significant to the characters, especially when it comes to the investigative Martin and his relationship with the emotional Dovidl. Which are shown this in flashbacks to the past, and in the subplot concerning Dovidl’s family, who perished in the holocaust.

The only thing I thought was truly questionable in the film was the ending. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a bit of a head-scratcher at first, until I realized that it was best understood from Martin’s perspective regarding the mythos of his younger brother and the shadow that cast him under. So, it takes a bit of thought to properly “decode”. The holocaust angle thankfully isn’t the films one focus, while the tragedy is treated with weight and respect, it’s mostly relevant in the way it links to the character of Dovidl and a subplot about his struggle with his faith.

The film being titled Song of Names naturally lends itself to the narrative focus on music, mostly through the character of Dovidl and how it connects him to his lost family. The many shots of violins being played are given an almost mystical quality to them, like a spell bringing voice to the characters emotions. I can’t say for certain, myself not being a musician, if the notes they were shown to play corresponded with the notes the audience hears. So, if any violinists/musicians out there see such mishandling as a deal breaker, be forewarned to seek better council than I. I can however offer my thoughts on the acting.

Tim Roth’s Martin was a relatable character in his seemingly endless pursuit for closure with his brother Dovidl, played as very subdued by Clive Owen in the last third of the film. While I personally felt a greater connection to Martin over the course of the story, easily sharing in his frustrations at every roadblock and his delight in each new discovery, Owen did a good job of displaying the weight that the character of Dovidl grew to possess over the course of the film. A none-too easy task given it’s a character who, due to the temporal nature of much of the film, has most of his screen-time taken up by his two younger incarnations.

Speaking of which, while Misha Handley’s young Martin was fine, I found the character of young Dovidl, played by Luke Doyle inconsistent, and it didn’t sit right with me. The teenage incarnations were curiously the opposite. Jonah Hauer-King sold me on the arrogant ego of a teenage Dovidl with his impassioned gesturing and charisma, while Gerran Howell’s teenage Martin was either too sheepish to be capable of retaining a girlfriend or just really shouldn’t have skipped his morning coffee. One standout performance from the rest of the cast, in my mind at least, was the violin playing hobo from the start of the film who was very humorous.

The editing of Song of Names does a good job, mostly keeping the scenes of the past and future easy to discern, and always quickly showing the principle characters to inform where we are in the timeline. Unfortunately, the few scenes where it slips stick out. It also hurts the film that there doesn’t seem to be much else delineating the competing time periods – apart from the age of the characters – when they are coloured and shot very similarly.

Overall, I would recommend this movie, to lovers of music, mystery, or character driven storytelling in general. At the beginning of Song of Names, I held nothing but questions, and by its end I was satisfied by the answers I received and the intelligent way I was given them. It’s a clever film that rewards close watching for all the little clues and details, and probably more for the more musically literate.

If you want to catch it in theatres it will be appearing in the Chicago International Film Festival on Oct 20th, before a more general North American release on Christmas day.