The sheer number of Holocaust dramas in the film canon means that the bar for the genre has been raised, perhaps unfairly high. If the movie isn’t great, considering the epic horror of the subject, it can and should be dismissed, or so the thinking seems to be.
But what if the tale’s a decent yarn with interesting characters, a mystery or two and the rich subtexts of classical music, an arrogant prodigy, World War II childhood, famously valuable violins, and Judaism? With those ingredients, “The Song of Names” would be at least watchable with or without the vast tragedy that hangs over it.
French Canadian director François Girard is at home in this milieu, with “The Red Violin” and “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould” on his resume. He and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine serve up a quiet, atmospheric period piece in adapting Norman Lebrecht’d novel.
It’s about two friends who grew up together in London “during The War,” who broke from each other suddenly. And in the narrative present, 35 years after that break, one of the two is still doggedly searching for the other, seeking closure and answers about whatever happened to the fellow with “music from the gods” talent.
In 1951, a London concert debut, that of a Warsaw-born prodigy raised and schooled in Britain, is canceled. The man promoting it, played by Stanley Townsend, is gutted by his discovery’s no-show. His son Martin (Gerran Howell) is a tad put out, as well.
In 1986, Martin — now played by Tim Roth — is a music educator and concert promoter who, when judging a competition in Tyneside, sees a Newcastle boy conduct an odd ritual. He kisses the precious lump of resin he uses on his bow before playing.
Martin has seen that before, decades ago. Thus begins his latest hunt for his long lost “brother.” His wife (Catherine McCormick) will just have to understand.
“The Song of Names” tucks Martin’s 1986 search, updated in Tyneside, Warsaw and on to New York, with long flashbacks telling the story of how the two boys met and much of what led up to that infamous no-show Big Show in 1951.
Luke Doyle plays little Dovidl Rapaport, son of lower middle class Jews from Warsaw, a “genius” in his father’s eyes. That’s made him arrogant beyond measure, even as he seeks mentorship in pre-war London.
“He’s not (Fritz) Kreisler,” his would-be teacher tells Martin’s father.
“Kreisler is NOT Rapaport,” the precious brat spits back.
But Mr. Morrison (Townsend) decides that the child must be taught and must stay in London. He will stay with his family, and room with his son Martin, which doesn’t sit well with the kid (Misha Handley).
Intimidating Dovidl speaks several languages, is more serious about music than Martin (who plays piano) and can even best him in a tussle. Might as well learn to put up with him. They grow up, thick as thieves.
Flashbacks quickly sum up the war years, Dovidl’s insistence on standing outside and watching The London Bliz because “It would have been like this” for his family in Warsaw, Dovidl acquiring a young musical rival and the two of them having a “Devil Went Down to Georgia” fiddle face-off in a crowded air raid shelter. Later, there’s the futile search for Dovidl’s family after the war.
Martin’s connection to the slightly younger boy is almost worshipful. Dovidl’s looming teenage crisis of faith can be tossed off in an aphorism.
“Ethnicity is the skin you were born with and will have until the day you die. Religion is a coat. When it gets too hot, you can take it off.”
The teaching, the piano-violin duets and the sibling-level friendship all end the night Dovidl stands up an audience, an orchestra and Martin’s father in 1951. Martin’s wife Helen was there. So she understands the renewed search, even as she dismisses it as futile.
“If he wanted to be found, don’t you think he would have found you?”
The cold trail leads from that Newcastle boy to the street performer who taught him, to Warsaw, a woman (Magdalena Cielecka), the Treblinka concentration camp, and onward.
Saul Rubinek has a warm on-screen moment, playing a luthier and violin broker, and Eddie Izzard a nice cameo as the radio announcer for that infamous concert-that-never-was broadcast.
“The Song of Names” has a gloomy cast about it, overcast out-of-doors, the dimly-lit wooden interiors of the life of privilege the boys grew up in, concert halls and nightclubs — all shaded with the hazy glow of memory.
The violin playing fakery is top notch, from the boy “prodigy” to the late-arriving big name you’ll see listed on the credits below. And the acting has a lived-in reality, even if the emotional punch any story with “Holocaust” attached to it is mostly missing.
That only turns up in “the reveal,” the moment that gives the film its title.
But that payoff is as rich musically as it is dramatically. One problem with movies of the “Mister Holland’s Opus/Mo’Better Blues” bent, films building towards some signal moment in music that is what the film is based on, is what letdowns those “grand musical statements” always are. Not here. It’s musically poignant and moving.
Still, “The Song of Names” is a more interesting than fascinating mystery than it is a profound statement on memory, loss, tragedy and faith — which was plainly its aim. The conflict is more talked about than keenly felt, the climax something of an over-the-top anti-climax.
But its shortcomings shouldn’t deprive you of the pleasure of immersing yourself in this world, this time, these lives and this story. It’s as watchable as its opening credits promise it will be.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language, brief sexual material, thematic elements, and smoking
Cast: Tim Roth, Clive Owen, Catherine McCormick, Jonah Hauer-King, Gerran Howell, Magdalena Cielecka, Stanley Townsend, Saul Rubinek and Eddie Izzard.
Credits: Directed by François Girard, script by Jeffrey Caine, based on the Norman Lebrecht novel. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:53