Writer: Jeffrey Caine
Director: François Girard
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
In the 1990s, François Girard directed and co-wrote Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, a game changer for both biopics and movies about music. In comparison his new film, The Song of Names, based on the novel by Norman Lebrecht, lacks verve and experimentation. Its story of a man trying to find his old school friend, a violin prodigy, is well-told in places but is fairly humdrum in others.
Of course, The Song of Names is not Girard’s first film about violins. In 1998, The Red Violin won an Oscar for the Best Original Score. The score in Girard’s latest, this time by Howard Shore, is equally impressive evoking both the Jewish faith and Eastern Europe. Shore’s music, elegiac and spiritual, is one of the best things about the film, but it doesn’t come until the end. Before, we have a fairly dull detective story set in the 1980s as Martin (Tim Roth) tries to find his friend Dovidl Rapoport (Clive Owen), a search that takes him to Newcastle, Warsaw and New York.
The last time that Martin saw Dovidl was in 1951. Martin’s father had organised a concert to show off the skills of the young musician entrusted into his care at the start of The Second World War, as the Germans rolled into Poland, possibly killing Dovidl’s family. With a full auditorium and with royalty in attendance, Dovidl does a no-show. Martin’s father loses his money and his reputation, and dies soon after.
Folded into this story are flashbacks which chart the initially stormy relationship between the two boys. Young Dovidl is played well by Luke Doyle, himself a violin prodigy, shining here in his first major acting role. Misha Handley gives a good performance, too, as the obedient young Martin, and there is something of John Boorman’s Hope and Glory in the freedoms and excitements that the Blitz brings. One scene, featuring duelling violinists in an air raid shelter is thrilling, albeit unlikely.
As the older Martin, Roth is world-weary and obscure, not letting on whether his manhunt is driven by fraternal love or by revenge. As Dovidl, Owen is surprisingly good, connecting well with his violin in the final scenes, and convincing in his accent, part Polish, part Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Catherine McCormack does the best she can with the underwritten role of Martin’s unsupportive and chain smoking wife.
The denouement of The Song of Names is finally moving, but Martin’s journey seems fairly dull in comparison to Dovidl’s, and yet his story is foregrounded here, in dreary London shades. Dovidl’s own search to find out what happened to his family is more compelling. Right ending, but Girard’s film takes the wrong route.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October