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Film Review: “The Song of Names” Too Often Sings Flat

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 3rd, 2020

Film poster: “The Song of Names”

The Song of Names (François Girard, 2019) 2 out of 4 stars.

There is one truly affecting scene in The Song of Names, the new film from François Girard (The Red Violin), based on the eponymous 2002 novel by Norman Lebrecht: a young Polish Jew in 1951 London finds himself in an orthodox synagogue listening to the names of his Nazi-murdered relatives sung by a rabbi, overcome by the understandable emotion of the moment. Unlike so much of the rest of the movie, which screams its manufactured contrivances throughout, this moment is suffused with genuine sentiment. How could it not be, given the real-life horrors of the Shoah? Still, even the powerful catharsis of the lament is tinged with the narrative machinations that plague the overall script, its gravitas tacked on like a cheat.

Despite my disappointment with the story, there are a few solid elements to recommend. Tim Roth (Luce) is always extremely watchable as Martin Simmonds, a 50-ish classical-music impresario (of sorts, as we never really learn what he does, exactly) who becomes obsessed with finding the foster brother – a violin prodigy and Jewish refugee from Poland named Dovidl Rapoport – with whom he grew up, who mysteriously vanished on the night of his concert debut, at 21. When Martin, 35 years later, sees (in the first of many ridiculous coincidences) a boy repeat an action, on stage at a musical competition, identical to one that Dovidl used to perform before playing, he launches into a frenzied international search for his long-lost companion. If you ask, as did I, “what took him so long?,” then The Song of Names may not be for you.

L-R: Luke Doyle as young Dovidl Rapoport and Misha Handley as young Martin Simmonds in THE SONG OF NAMES ©Sony Pictures Classics

As terrific as is Roth, however, the actors who play his younger self are less compelling. No better are those who play Dovidl, though he will eventually morph into Clive Owen (Ophelia), which is not a bad thing. Worse than the uneven collection of performances is the expositional dialogue forced upon the actors, and the constant series of thinly plotted happy dramatic accidents that lead Roth’s Martin rather quickly (albeit with a 35-year delay) towards his target. And then there are the bitter women on the edges (both of whom chain smoke, for some reason), one played by Catherine McCormack (The Fold), whose primary purpose is to wish men were better, though a strange final-act revelation subverts that particular complaint. In 2020, what could be better are more substantial roles for actresses.

The plot, despite the above problems, does hold one’s interest for significant chunks, before the heavy hands of screenwriter Jeffrey Caine (The Constant Gardener) reveal themselves once more. At its center, as shown in that synagogue sequence, lies a tragic tale that should move us all. If only this song could sing beyond that single, forceful verse.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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