The Song of Names

C+ Drama
Written by Jeffrey Caine
Directed by François Girard

Jeffrey Caine and François Girard’s new film starts with the runup to a big concert. The crowd have come to see the first major performance of a young violin virtuoso. But the new star doesn’t show up. What happened to him? After that mysterious opening, almost everything else in the movie is set either years earlier or decades later. Occasionally, the film works.

It’s also about Judaism as an ethnicity and a religion, and about surviving the Holocaust when your family perished. But that doesn’t make it a good film.

When we first meet Dovidl Rapapor, he’s a nine-year-old, brilliant violinist with an exciting future. He’s also a Polish Jew studying in England. His family is still in Warsaw, and its summer, 1939. He doesn’t know it, but when his father leaves him in the hands of the British Simmonds family, Dovidl will never see a blood relative again.

The boyhood scenes are the best in the film. The Simmonds aren’t Jewish, but they respect his religion and keep a kosher home. They have a son Dovidl’s age, Martin. The kids’ relationship starts off badly, but that’s what you’d expect from two boys at that age, suddenly thrown together. They argue, they fight, and they eventually come to love each other as brothers. Dovidl turns out to be the more rebellious of the two. He swipes a bottle of milk. Worse, after a blitz (remember this is London during World War II), he steals from the dead.

Luke Doyle plays Dovidl as a child, and Jonah Hauer-King plays him as a young adult. Gerran Howell and Misha Handley play Martin at the same ages. Movie stars Clive Owen and Tim Roth play them as middle-aged men.

And it’s Roth, playing the middle-aged Martin, who holds up the main pillar of the story – a search for his adopted brother, set 35 years after the concert that never happened. Unfortunately, it’s a very weak pillar.

Martin, now a happily married man and a music teacher, stumbles on a clue to what happened to his long-lost adopted brother. He travels to Poland, New York, and back to England in his search. Clearly, the brother doesn’t want to be found. In this weakest and least believable part of the film, he follows a thin thread to find the mystery. There’s no real urgency.

Of course, Martin finds Dovidl – how else could this kind of movie end. Who Dovidl turned into, and why he didn’t turn up at his own concert, is the film’s big surprise. But the adult Dovidl is such a jerk that it’s hard to feel any warmth. On the other hand, Martin’s physical reaction to reconnecting to his “brother” after 35 years doesn’t seem like the response of an intelligent, educated, middle-aged classical musician.

The story of the two boys is fascinating. Too bad that most of the film is about the two men.

The Song of Names opens Friday at the Embarcadero Center ClayCorrection made 1/2.