The Song of Names is a symphony of flat notes. Some films simply don’t work for some unknown and unidentifiable reason. And, oh my goodness, is The Song of Names ever one of them! Directed by François Girard and produced by Robert Lantos, The Song of Names seems like a sure-fire masterpiece. But it’s an immaculately crafted and elaborately mounted bore.
The film arrives with a warranted sense of excitement. After delivering 1998’s The Red Violin, an epic international co-production that won an Oscar with its sweeping saga of a single violin that charted over a century of musical history, Girard’s return to a tale of classical music is an event. The Song of Names adapts Norman Lebrecht’s powerful novel of the same name. It takes a conceit somewhat similar to the structure of The Red Violin, but with far less success. The result is disappointing.
The film is the story of Martin and Dovidl, a Christian and a Jew who grew up together in wartime London. The boys, played by Gerran Howell and Jonah Hauer-King in their younger years, become unlikely friends. Dovidl, a child prodigy on the violin, finds immediately favoured by his friend’s father. While the burden of being a boring, untalented son proves trying for Martin, the pain of the Holocaust has lingering effects for them both. Dovidl, adopted by Martin’s family, is restlessly uprooted in his new home as he struggles to say goodbye to the family ripped from him. Duelling narratives weave between past and present as the elder Martin (Tim Roth) searches for Dovidl (Clive Owen), who simply vanished from the family moments before he was set to delivering the debut performance for which his adopted father invested a fortune.
The story reads like one of those prestige pictures destined for awards. However, despite being beautifully shot and gorgeously mounted, The Song of Names is dramatically inert. Girard, normally a reliable master behind the camera, plays it all with a sense of over-starched portentousness. The overly calculated beauty leaves one cold.
The mystery of Dovidl’s French exit leaves a trail of clues that speak of a song of atonement. But the hunt is an overdrawn tease without much payoff. Classical music is an intellectual art, whereas Girard plays The Song of Names for grand emotions that fail to arise. The film wrestles with the aspirations of art-house prestige and crowd-pleasing appeal, but it never finds harmony.
The Song of Names might best be enjoyed with one’s eyes closed. While the film itself is a forgettable bore, it contains one of the best soundtracks yet from Howard Shore. The three-time Oscar winner for the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the films of David Cronenberg truly is a virtuoso. His compositions for The Song of Names weave a sorrowful elegy for victims of the Holocaust and for those who carry their memory. It lingers throughout the film like a ghost, never overwhelming the drama while delicately balancing the spirit of the friends’ duelling quests. The Song snores, but Shore scores.
The Song of Names opens in theatres December 25.