The Song of Names, 2019.
Directed by François Girard.
Starring Tim Roth, Clive Owen, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard, Saul Rubinek, Jonah Hauer-King, Gerran Howell, Luke Doyle, Misha Handley, and Stanley Townsend.
Tim Roth and Clive Owen star in an emotional detective story spread over two continents and a half century. Beneath the film’s stunning and pulsing musical revelations burn the horror of a war and the lost souls extinguished from history.
At the center of The Song of Names (The Red Violin director François Girard) is a mystery of sorts involving Tim Roth’s Martin stumbling upon a clue regarding the disappearance of his nonbiological brother Dovidl (Clive Owen). The violin prodigy disappeared during the aftermath of World War II as he was about to put on a career-launching performance for critics and journalists alike, only to never return to the venue after rehearsal, which is certainly an attention grabber considering the circumstances of impending fame. So, it’s frustrating that the script from Jeffrey Caine (based on the novel by Norman Lebrecht) never creates a sense of urgency or intrigue regarding these new clues or even any real drama.
A little over an hour into the film the brothers do reconnect in what has to be the least exciting way possible, or rather events so flat that it’s puzzling why the first half is even treated as episodic detective work. When Martin is not traveling across Eastern Europe and posing questions to individuals that might be able to further steer him in the right direction, there are poorly edited flashback sequences that fly through multiple younger stages of these brothers. As a Polish Jew coming-of-age at the height of the Nazi invasion, Dovidl is separated from his family and taken in by Martin’s father Gilbert (Stanley Townsend), a wealthy music teacher that can provide safety, a future, and the necessary tools to realizing the boy’s potential.
At first, Martin feels threatened and jealous having to share the love, but the two quickly come to understand one another following a segment where Dovidl is brought to tears by radio reports of attacks on Warsaw. From there, a structure is established of Martin in the 1980s putting together various puzzle pieces and brief glimpses of the boys as children. Unfortunately, the child actors are average at best and are never really given enough material to create character arcs or define them. There’s one heated exchange involving Dovidl’s willingness to shamelessly rob the dead/casualties of war (he’s definitely high on himself as an artist and clearly perceives the world in unique coloring factoring in his upbringing), and then a renouncement of faith (this part is a teenage version of the character and played by a different actor) that is engaging to watch, but for the most part, there’s never really any forward momentum or reason to care about any such reunion.
By the time explanations and answers arise, The Song of Names does become a bit more interesting, but at the cost of questioning why the filmmaker settled on a plot of globetrotting around the world to find this man when any number of approaches would have likely yielded something far more incisive. The stretch where Dovidl abandons his life as a rising musician to take on bigger and more important responsibilities is enlightening and would have made for a better movie itself. Martin finally getting in contact with Dovidl once again and coming to terms with the reasoning behind leaving also adds another layer to the tale of stolen brotherhood, with their attempts to make peace with one another serving as a genuinely emotional climax (one final cathartic performance releasing a lifetime of tragedy and pain).
One just has to sit through an incredibly boring first hour of standard biopic troops and the usual book adaptation shortcoming of not having enough time to properly do justice to each of the parallel timelines, to actually get to the rewarding payoff. And when it comes down to it, even that is not necessarily outstanding or worth sitting through the first hour.
The musical compositions from Lord of the Rings composer Howard Shore (in addition to some actual classical pieces) are obviously soothing melodies for the ears, and the cinematography from David Franco (not that Franco) appropriately is fixated on the gentle hand movements and plucking of the strings, making a greater case for less detective work. I don’t want to say Howard Shore’s talents go waste; what he does do here absolutely elevates The Song of Names by a notch or two, but all throughout this endeavor, the craft is hung up on all the wrong elements. It’s like got François Girard into his directorial wheelhouse but only put one foot inside.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com