“The Song of Names” is a movie with deep meditations on its mind. It’s about the bonds of family, both those forged by blood and by choice. It’s about the ravages of war on faith and what it means to worship. It’s about post-WWII Jewish identity. Above all, it’s about music: what it means to make it, to devote one’s self to it and how it can be used to exalt the ego or the divine.
But weighty topics do not a weighty movie make if the execution fails to rise to the task, and in nearly every way the craftsmanship of “The Song of Names” manages to underwhelm.
Sony Pictures Classics presents a film directed by François Girard and written by Jeffrey Caine, based on a novel by Norman Lebrecht. Rated PG-13 (for some strong language, brief sexual material, thematic elements, and smoking). Running time: 113 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.
Martin and Dovidl (played as adults by Tim Roth and Clive Owen) were brothers in spirit if not by blood or faith. Martin’s British family took in young Polish-Jewish violin prodigy Dovidl as the Nazis were conducting their reign of terror across Europe, committing to his safekeeping and musical education. There is a spark of genius in Dovidl’s music-making, one that cannot be allowed to be snuffed out by WWII.
The boys come of age together, bratty and spoiled only-child Martin maturing into a respectable young man in the presence of Dovidl, a charismatic and increasingly troubled genius tortured by not knowing the fate of his family in Warsaw. Then, on the night of his grand coming-out concert in 1951, Dovidl and his angelic violin go missing, leaving Martin’s family in financial and emotional ruins.
Thirty-five years later, a middle-aged Martin, now a music consultant, experiences a spark of recognition when he notices another violinist’s ritualistic fiddling with a hunk of rosin. It recalls an old habit of Dovidl’s and sets Martin off on a scavenger hunt around the globe to track down his long-lost brother and at last solve the mystery of his disappearance.
It’s an unnecessarily complicated puzzle-box construction that only serves to cheapen the story and diminish its impact. For as much time as we spend with present-day Martin, we never really get to know him, so singular is his focus on a man we can’t see — a man whose whereabouts prove far less interesting than theemotional and spiritual journey he took to get there, and which ultimately gets the short shrift. Far from heightening the sense of mystery, the flashback construction renders the present-day dramatically inert, giving fine actors little to do save deliver exposition.
One bright spot, blessedly, is the thing the film absolutely has to get right: the music. Director François Girard has long worked translating music for the medium of cinema, most notably in “The Red Violin” (1998). The music feels authentic, and occasionally rapturous, thanks to the work of composer Howard Shore and Rey Chen, the Taiwanese-Australian solo violinist who lends Dovidl his genius.
Would that he could have lent the turgid and self-importantscreenplay some of his genius, too.