“The Song of Names” is the kind of mediocre Holocaust drama that used to be taken more seriously in the 1990s, partly thanks to the Weinstein brothers and Miramax.
Director Francois Girard (“The Red Violin”) and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine’s adaptation of Norman Lebrecht’s novel is full of empty gestures and banal observations about remembrance and family, most of which flop because of wooden performances and trite dialogue.
Girard’s direction, as well as some star charisma from co-leads Tim Roth and Clive Owen, both give the movie enough emotional resonance to keep afloat its bland narrative — about the 35-year-long search for a missing Jewish violinist prodigy — but there’s no urgency or mystery to the movie, nor any compelling reason to care about its characters beyond a general hope that they’ll ultimately discover something true and/or moving about Judaism, music, and genocide. They do not, though Howard Shore’s score is typically compelling in a swooning, insistent sort of way.
Not much else about “The Song of Names” feels authentic or believable. Primarily set in London from 1951-1986, Caine’s adaptation flashes back and forward to three key moments in the lives of cocky Polish violinist Dovidl (Owen) and his equally stubborn adopted brother Martin (Roth). Martin travels around the world, specifically to Warsaw and Brooklyn, searching for Dovidl, who disappeared without a trace before a highly publicized concert, despite the nagging objections of his poorly-developed wife Helen (Catherine McCormack).
During his travels (including a short visit to Treblinka), Martin spends most of his time remembering his time with Dovidl between the ages of nine to 13 — Martin’s father Gilbert (Stuart Townsend) took in Dovidl during the war — and then again at ages 17-23; as children, Martin and Dovidl are played by Misha Handley and Luke Doyle, and as young adults by, respectively, Gerran Howell and Jonah Hauer-King.
In a few scenes, Martin realizes that he, a gentile, has no clue about the depths of the trauma felt by Dovidl, a Jewish refugee, after the latter’s separation from his Warsaw-based family. Martin and Dovidl’s attempts at understanding each other are often boiled down to clichés and generalities about life during wartime. So Martin initially sulks and complains at the thought of sharing a room with a cocky foreigner, someone whose talent has earned him the attention and respect of Martin’s father. But then the two kids bond over cards, chess, girls, and musical duets whenever Dovidl isn’t making arrogant and heavily accented declarations of self-love.
Screenwriter Caine deliberately withholds a lot of basic information about novelist Lebrecht’s characters between flashbacks, which makes the plot of “The Song of Names” often seem like a well-polished nesting doll. The war, religion, and musical performances that define Dovidl are, in that sense, mostly presented as background noise that comes to the story’s foreground only whenever Girard and Caine want to dramatically increase their drama’s emotional stakes. Which wouldn’t be so annoying if the actors were better at conveying emotions that were more complex than petulance or callow self-interest.
Much of Caine’s dialogue sticks in the younger actors’ throats, but even small emotional moments, like when Martin walks in on Dovidl as he furtively cries over a photo of his family, look ridiculous because of the Welsh-born Doyle’s unbelievable Polish accent. Though to be fair, even Owen, who believably shoulders a superhuman load of grief in later scenes, struggles with a Polish accent, which is most apparent whenever he grinds out Misha Handley words with a “th” in them, like “fadder” or “brudder.”
And even if you can overlook a few bad accents, Caine and the ensemble cast generally fail to convey great sadness in any dialogue-intensive scene that concerns faith or music. Girard does what he can during a tense scene set in a London air-raid bunker, where young Dovidl and a rival violinist perform a “Dueling Banjos”-style duet that Girard films like a relay race. Then again, Doyle is a trained violinist, and his co-stars are not, so their frantic pantomiming is often distracting, though the music their characters produce (performed off-screen by Ray Chen) is rather good.
Not as good: any big scene that revolves around Dovidl’s survivor’s guilt or his spirituality, like when he makes a big show of ripping up his yarmulke and tallit. The stunned look on Howell’s face as Hauer-King storms out of a London temple is unintentionally campy, as is the pseudo-revelatory scene where Martin and Dovidl, now middle-aged, reunite. Seeing Clive Owen decked out in a fedora, payot-style sideburns, and a face-devouring push-broom beard is shocking, but not in the way that the filmmakers intended.
Watching Roth’s stunned face as he, in character, tries to process his emotions also reminds us of the insurmountable gap between emotional truths and their representation in even the most well-intended Holocaust drama. Martin and Dovidl’s reunion is one of several emotional make-or-break mini-climaxes in Caine and Lebrecht’s scenario, none of which are strong enough on their own, nor significantly enhanced by a decent plot twist.
There’s ultimately too much strained seriousness in “The Song of Names”‘ dramatically flimsy and symbolically heavy episodic narrative, making Girard and Caine’s already dated feel-good historical drama seem especially tacky.