Classy With a Tinge of Spirituality, ‘The Song of Names’ Is a Tasteful Period Drama Filled With Exquisite Production Design
Several years after his childhood friend, a violin prodigy, disappears on the eve of his first solo concert, an Englishman travels throughout Europe to find him.
Director: François Girard
Cast: Tim Roth, Clive Owens, Stanley Townsend, Catherine McCormack, Gerran Howell, Jonah Hauer-King
Country: Canada, Hungary, UK, Germany
Runtime: 113 minutes
“Too many flourishes!” A violin virtuoso remarks after a beautiful performance by child prodigy Dovidl Rapoport – appropriately enough, this seems to be an apt description of The Song of Names as well. Directed by François Girard, the film is an elegant period drama that shines for its lavish sets and exquisite soundtrack but feels lacking in narrative substance. Still, The Song of Names is more than capable in delivering a fuss-free, sophisticated fare mainly targeted at fans of period dramas.
The film jumps between three time periods, focusing on the friendship between English musician Martin Simmonds (Tim Roth) and Polish violin prodigy Dovidl (Clive Owens). After escaping from Germany’s invasion of Poland during World War 2, a young Dovidl moves in with Martin’s family, whose father hopes to further develop the young violinist’s talent.
Despite a rocky start, the pair’s friendship grows over the years but this is torn asunder by Dovidl’s mysterious disappearance on the night of his first concert. Now in his 50s, an older Martin chances upon a clue that could lead him to his old friend.
Dovidl’s character arc occupies almost all of the film’s hefty runtime. Even at a young age, Dovidl is keenly aware of his musical talents – so much so that he borders on haughtiness. This unresolved weakness would compound towards Dovidl’s struggles with spirituality as he painfully accepts the fate of his family back home in Poland.
While the narrative is mainly told through Martin’s perspective, it gets confusing with how he contributes little to no part in Dovidl’s character growth, especially when the bond the two characters forge don’t feel as deep as the story would suggest. However, despite unclear motivations and an even murkier characterisation, Martin’s journey across time and continents between one clue to the other is still surprisingly interesting; although the journey itself might prove to be far more enjoyable than the payoff.
It may be unclear from its first third but spirituality and religion is the key theme of The Song of Names. This angle sets the stage for affecting moments highlighting the power of faith. These moments, however, can feel undermined with how the story reaches out to a message greater than its means. This, especially when its story invokes raw historical tragedies where anything less than exceptional feels doubly wanting.
Undoubtedly, where The Song of Names shines is with its musical performances. With a hearty selection of classical pieces and an award-winning original score – all mixed to perfection in the film – every moment Dovidl takes centrestage with his violin is enthralling. A clear highlight comes early in the film with a show-stopping violin duel in a bomb shelter between Dovidl and another prodigy.
The violin’s sophisticated voice would seep in the film’s lavish set design, costumes and the camera’s eye for class. Fans of period pieces (particularly those set in the UK) will be in for a treat with The Song of Names. The high marks the film scores in production also more than makes up for its slow parts, with the visuals always kept to an attractive lushness.
The film’s performances vary in quality. Luke Doyle, Jonah Hauer-King, and Clive Owens each play Dovidl at different stages of his life. They excel in portraying the character’s magnetic personality and inner conflicts, with extra suavity in their movements whenever armed with a violin and bow.
On the other hand, the performances of Misha Handley, Gerran Howell, and Tim Roth, each playing Martin through the years, is far more subdued, especially when there is little they are given to work with. However, Tim Roth, in particular, does knock it out of the park whenever he is given direction and closeups.
While clearly not a special effects extravaganza, The Song of Names should still be experienced in a cinema for its impeccable sound mixing and gorgeous production. The film does falter with its narrative execution especially when it hosts a daunting runtime. Still, together with a worthwhile central mystery and occasional moments of brilliance, The Song of Names is as posh as a night at the opera.
The Song of Names will open in cinemas this Thursday, 15 October, showing exclusively in Shaw Theatres.
In the meantime, check out the film’s trailer below:
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