The Song of Names
Updated: Jul 12, 2021
The Song of Names is a drama about grief, faith, family and music. It is the story of the mysterious disappearance of a young violin virtuoso and a search for him several decades later. It has a strong sense of what Judaism means for those who lost family in the Holocaust; specifically, how it can be deeper than religion. There are moments exploring that concept that have great power. However, the emotions are strangely reserved, especially considering the amount of pain the two main characters are going through. Due to this, it was difficult to stay consistently engaged. Still, it does contain thought-provoking ideas, even if it holds too much in.
In 1939, Dovidl is brought to London by his father to find someone to better hone his talents as a violin player. He is left in the care of the Simmonds family and becomes friends with their son, Martin. Twelve years later, Dovidl fails to show up for a concert, vanishing without a trace. After over three decades of wondering, Martin stumbles upon a clue to where Dovidl went next, beginning a quest to discover what happened to his friend.
The mystery is uninteresting, as is the character of Martin. What kept me intrigued is the way The Song of Names (based on the 2002 novel by Norman Lebrecht) dealt with Dovidl’s crisis of faith. The Simmonds’ are not Jewish, but they agree to keep Kosher so Dovidl can live with them. While there, he goes to synagogue and even has a Bar Mitzvah. However, he is haunted by not knowing if his parents and siblings survived the Nazi occupation.
This leads to a conversation with Martin about Judaism being more than a religion; it is cultural. More of that would have been appreciated. It is at its best when it looks at what this means to Dovidl. It is fascinating to see Jewish grief, and survivor’s guilt from those who made it through the Holocaust unsure of what became of their loved ones, portrayed in this way. I wish the entire movie had been about that.
The Song of Names (106 minutes without the end credits) devotes a scene or two to the immediate effects of World War II, yet it is always on Dovidl’s mind. He got out of Poland because of the efforts of his father, using his son’s musical ability as an opportunity to keep him safe. That moment is the motivating force of the story. It handles these things (the murder of millions of Jews, guilt, faith) with appropriate respect, but there is only one scene where the anger and hurt really comes out. It involves the titular piece of music, a song listing those who were killed during the Holocaust. The very notion that there are so many names they needed to put them to a melody so they could remember them all is devastating. Unfortunately, the movie spends too much of its runtime uncertain of what to do with that outrage.
Its biggest issue is that most of what we see is told from Martin’s perspective. Dovidl’s journey is kept at arm’s length, at least until everything is revealed. Martin does not, could not possibly, understand Dovidl’s experience. That is fine if his arc is about him growing and accepting. I did not get that sense.
The Song of Names introduces two men who were impacted by WWII in different ways and then watches how they deal with it. Sadly, it constantly remains one step away from truly connecting with Dovidl’s struggle. Martin’s story is familiar from other historical dramas and lacks a worthwhile payoff. Dovidl’s is where the intrigue is. When The Song of Names focuses on his situation, it has something to say. It does that just enough to earn a mild recommendation, particularly for those who have been touched in some way by the horrible events of the Holocaust.
3 out of 5
Cast: Tim Roth as Martin
Catherine McCormack as Helen
Jonah Hauer-King as Dovidl 17-23
Gerran Howell as Martin 17-21
Luke Doyle as Dovidl 9-13
Misha Handley as Martin 9-13
Directed by François Girard
Screenplay by Jeffrey Caine