Two out of four stars
Films exploring events of the Holocaust and its ripples arrive with almost as much frequency as those about World War II. Both related genres have enjoyed much success with both fictional and non-fictional narratives and, while far less frequent, some have been failures.
Sadly, “The Song of Names” is one of those few well-intended misfires.
Taking place between the early 1940s and the mid-1980s, “The Song of Names” uses the always go-to storytelling crutch of flashback to bridge together the past and the present to concoct a mystery drama with almost nothing at stake. Writer Jeffrey Caine did this same sort of thing with “The Constant Gardener” from 2005 with far better results which might have been the big reason why French filmmaker Francois Girard (“Persepolis”) chose to get involved with the project. That, and violins.
In 1999 Girard directed the criminally underrated “The Red Violin” – a fantasy period piece which follows the history of a cursed violin for centuries which had more mystery/thriller elements in its opening scene than “The Song of Names” does for its entire running time.
Even better was Girard’s “Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould,” a feature exploring the tortured soul of the mid 20th century avant-garde pianist title character.
Portrayed by three actors each, Martin (Tim Roth) and Dovidl (Clive Owen) haven’t spoken in nearly three decades. During this long stretch, Martin has spent all of his free time trying to find Dovidl, a virtuoso violinist who mysteriously vanished before a much-publicized concert which left Martin’s promoter father despondent and nearly penniless.
Martin’s quest is equal parts curiosity and to let Dovidl know the level of hardship his actions had on Martin’s upper-class English family who effectively adopted him when his Polish Jewish family could no longer care for him.
At their first meeting, Martin, a competent pianist, was jealous of the attention paid to Dovidl, a wunderkind who regarded his own talents as superior yet lacked the drive to hone and improve his skills. Their relationship bears just the slightest resemblance to that of Mozart and Salieri in “Amadeus” – a care-free artistic genius who runs circles around a far less talented man chasing unattainable greatness.
After the awkward, mildly contentious breaking-in period, the two boys bond, or at least that’s what the filmmakers imply but so little time is devoted to these “middle years” the already plodding plot practically grinds to a halt. Add to this snag the fact that Owen doesn’t show up until well past the one hour mark and you have a story which shows no sign of ever delivering the goods.
Keeping things mildly interesting with woefully underwritten roles is Catherine McCormack (“Braveheart,” “Dangerous Beauty”) as Martin’s long-suffering wife Helen and Magdalena Cielecka as Anna, Dovidl’s Polish ex-lover who still carries a smoldering torch for him. Both actresses are called on to smoke a lot, stare into the distance and question Martin as to why he continues trying to locate someone who so obviously wishes not to be found.
Both the good and bad news is the filmmakers eventually get around to introducing the adult Dovidl, who does indeed explain why he took a permanent powder and it is, to be kind, beyond anti-climactic. Solving a movie mystery isn’t in itself a guarantee of a cathartic experience.
You can’t just reveal the big twist and assume the audience is going to be satisfied; it doesn’t work that way. You have to provide viewers with a payoff justifying their investment of time and emotion and on that level, “The Song of Names” is a huge letdown.
The movie could be worthwhile to those who appreciate exemplary musical scores and in particular the efforts of composer Howard Shore. A long-time collaborator of David Cronenberg, Shore won three Oscars for his work on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and his original pieces for solo violin and orchestra here match his best work.
Unless the music is of paramount importance to you, there’s no reason to rush out and see “The Song of Names” and perhaps not even a priority watch when it becomes available on-demand.
If you want to see two great movies on-line for the price one ticket at the theater, check out the previously mentioned “The Red Violin” and Roman Polanski’s multi-Oscar winning “The Pianist” starring Adrien Brody as a Polish musician trying to survive the German bombing of the Warsaw ghettos.
Presented in English with infrequent subtitled Polish and Hebrew.