SSIFF Review: Tim Roth Sifts Through the Past in 'The Song of Names'
by Alex Billington
September 29, 2019
Music is a remarkably powerful stimulus, capable of transmitting the greatest emotions and stories across space and time. A number of excellent films this year have shown the power of music (most notably Portrait of a Lady on Fire - read our review). Another one joining that list is The Song of Names, which is indeed about "The Song of Names", as the title indicates, from World War II. The film is described as an "emotional detective story spread over two continents and a half century", though that's not really the best description for it. The Song of Names is a moving Holocaust memorial film about a Polish Jewish violin prodigy named Dovidl who suddenly disappears in London just before a major concert, then is found again 35 years later by his British friend, living a much quieter life. It's good! But it's mostly bogged down by formulaic storytelling.
The Song of Names has only one main character: Martin, played by Tim Roth. This is being pointed out because, as much as the story needs to focus on him some of the time, it could've benefited from spending more time with the other characters. All of them are secondary, in the shadow of Martin, which doesn't make sense because the film is really, truly about this Polish violin prodigy. At the very beginning of WWII, Dovidl's parents take him (at age 9) to London to study in a prestigious music program. He is accepted, but his family returns to Poland and suffers a horrible fate in a concentration camp after Germany invades. The film is framed around a concert he was going to give in London, but he doesn't show up - no one knows why or where to, but through time we learn the actual story and it's not as surprising or as shocking as they want it to be. He just learns the truth about his family, tragically, so he leaves that London musician life behind.
The younger cast - Misha Handley and Luke Doyle - from the WWII time is slightly better than the older cast. But everyone is solid in it - lead by Tim Roth and Clive Owen in the later years. It's most important that the music and violin scenes stand out and they really do. Considering the film is about a musical genius who gave up his talents because of the tragedy of the Holocaust, it must stand out as an extraordinary work of aural storytelling. In that sense, it does succeed. The scenes where music is important are the best scenes, and they're the ones that will stick with most viewers. While there are a few of these very powerful moments, the film overall lacks any emotional resonance and is often bland during the many dramatic "investigative" scenes. A few days following the screening it's already hard to even remember much of what happened aside from the big music moments. It's far from being the remarkable "emotional detective story" it wishes it was.
As everyone knows, there have been numerous films throughout history about the lives of people affected by the Holocaust - survivors, family members, relatives, allies, saviors, even tormentors. The Song of Names is another film that memorializes the horrors of the Holocaust, reminding us how atrocious & destructive war always is, but doesn't offer us anything new that hasn't been covered in all the other films before it. Sure it doesn't need to, but this does hold it back. The music is exquisite, and makes it more than just another story about lives lost. But it never goes above and beyond the music, and focuses too much on the one British boy when the lives of the other people involved in the story are that much more interesting. It's still an engaging watch, and I can certainly appreciate the passion that everyone put into telling this story, but the film isn't the most memorable or effective. I still hope some viewers are moved by the film, and I expect many will be.
Alex's SSIFF 2019 Rating: 6.5 out of 10
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