“THE SONG OF NAMES”
A Holocaust Drama
François Girard’s “The Song of Names” begins in London in 1951, where Polish-Jewish violin prodigy Dovidl fails to show up to his public debut. Dovidl’s musical education and career have been financed by music publisher Gilbert Simmonds (Stanley Townsend). Simmonds’ son, Martin (Misha Handley), watches helplessly as his father is forced to cancel the performance and thereby face major losses that eventually lead to his early death. Martin never sees nor hears from Dovidl again until the present day, when a series of coincidences take him on an extended journey through Europe and America to find him.
Martin’s journey begins a series of flashbacks that slowly reveals how and why Dovidl became part of the Simmonds household. During World War II, as Dovidl’s family, the Rapoports remain in Poland on the eve of the Nazi invasion. Nine-year-old Dovidl (Luke Doyle) decides to go by the name David and is given sanctuary and support by the wealthy Simmonds. The family immediately sees the child’s rnatural musical abilities, and while the same age as David, Martin is at first unsure of this intruder and is upset by his brashness. He is jealous of his family who showers special attention on him.
David’s musical genius inflates his ego to the point of obnoxiousness, but we also see his vulnerability whenever he reacts to the tragic events taking place in Poland. His friendship with Martin is complex in that Martin envies David yet at the same time looks up to him because of his intellectual and emotional sophistication. We see the confused ideas and impulses that children face when confronted with real-life horror. David and Martin are able to show a wide spectrum of emotions.
Filmed in drab, muted colors making London of the 40s and 50s seem to have no character. Tim Roth as the present-day Martin mostly asks other characters about Dovidl’s post-1951 actions and this could have been depicted rather than merely spoken of. The reliance on the flashback is often clunky and Clive Owen as the older Dovidl hardly gets to explore the character’s rich contradictions and the subplot involving the men’s mutual love interest (Catherine McCormack) seems to be added for melodramatic purposes.
The material is powerful and conveys the tragedy of the Holocaust on both a personal and historical level and that tragedy is used to show Judaism almost exclusively with grief mourning. I really wanted to love this movie but too much emphasis is placed on a kind of collective martyrdom, especially when it suggests that the reason for Dovidl’s disappearance is his way of honoring the Shoah by renouncing the secular world. The film is built around Martin’s quest to understand what became of Dovidl but his character’s religious understanding of and response to tragedy is seen as a plot twist instead of the result of a spiritual journey.
Martin spends years searching for the man who was like a brother to him, hoping to find the closure he needs. He hopes for answers. Shortly before Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland, Simmonds’ father Gilbert took young violin virtuoso Dovidl Rapaport into their home, promising to nurture his career from the presumed safety of London. Even though young Martin was jealous of Rapaport’s prodigious talents, he too took pride in protecting his surrogate brother. However, the uncertainty of his family’s fate back in Poland tormented Rapaport, causing anxiety that often manifested itself in boorish and anti-social ways. Nevertheless, his talent only grew. By the time he reached his early twenties, he recorded an album that electrified the critics. Everything was fine at the rehearsal and sound-checks, but when it was time for the uninsured concert to start, Rapaport was a no-show.
The betrayal of his family haunts Martin as he obsessively tracks leads that take him back to Communist era Poland, but to no avail. His wife Helen worries about the financial and emotional strain, but she still accepts his quest for the truth. Martin Simmonds is a character everyone will identify with and Tim Roth is excellent as Martin, humanizing his neuroses and making his obsessive behavior sympathetic. In contrast, Clive Owen emphasizes all of grown-up Dovidl’s rough edges and standoffishness. The big revelation probably will not be all that surprising, but that is really not the point of the film. Rather, it clearly depicts the power of music to heal. This is the first feature film to receive permission to film on-site at the Treblinka memorial and we also see the half-dead shell of one of Rapaport’s former violinist rivals after decades imprisonment and dubious “treatment” in a Soviet-era sanitarium.
All is somewhat predictable, but the human messiness of the characters and their situations is much more important. It is sad that the narrative is lacking in clarity over timelines. The “Song of Names” is a reference to a l Jewish prayer, a days-long recitation of the names of the Holocaust victims set to music, and this sacred music is the film’s theme.