The program notes for the Canadian film “The Song of Names,” directed by Francois Girard, read as follows: “Martin Simmonds (Tim Roth) has been haunted throughout his life by the mysterious ‘disappearance’ of his ‘brother’ and extraordinary best friend, a Polish Jewish virtuoso violinist, David Rapoport, who vanished shortly before the 1951 London debut concert that would have launched his brilliant career. Thirty-five years later, Martin (Tim Roth) discovers that David (Clive Owen) may still be alive and sets out on an obsessive intercontinental search to find him and learn why he left.”
Sounded promising. Tim Roth is good in everything he does, and I’m sure he would have been good in this had he been given more to do. I haven’t seen Roth with so little business to conduct in a starring role since he lay on the floor bleeding out in “Reservoir Dogs.”
Then there’s the matter of Clive Owen, a handsome fellow if there ever was one. Except when he is depicted wearing a beard that would make modern-day retired David Letterman proud. The explanation, in David Rapoport’s case, is his Jewish faith, which he rejects early in the film, saying, “Ethnicity is a skin you’re born in and will wear until the day you die. Religion is a coat that, if it gets too hot, you can take it off.”
And take it off he does, with a grand flourish and a mock ceremony witnessed by his good friend Martin. The story arc we are then asked to accept changes a great deal from this point, where a “teen-aged” David is anti-religion, to the later point in the story, when David has become a religious zealot. Unfortunately, David never becomes likable or admirable and his treatment of others continues to spiral downward.
David came to be Martin’s good friend when David’s Polish father took him to London as a boy genius violinist at the tender age of 13, and Martin’s generous musician promoter father offered to raise the boy alongside his own same-aged son Martin. This temporary guardianship included making sure that David would be brought up in his Jewish faith and receive additional training on the violin.
It is not initially a marriage made in heaven between Martin and David. That is partially because young David (and, truth be told, old David) is an intrinsically unlikable fellow. He is vain, pompous, full of himself, narcissistic, a bit of a thief and rogue, and constantly telling people he is a genius. Think Donald Trump turned musician. As (bad) luck would have it, the Germans sweep into Poland while David is living with Martin’s family and the entire Rapoport family—parents and 2 younger sisters—are killed at Treblinka—although David does not learn this for certain immediately.
David, therefore, lives with Martin and his family for 12 full years, but apparently his allegiance to these kind-hearted surrogate family members is not strong, since, by film’s end, he wants no further contact with Martin, telling him so in a note. (At that point, each boy has lost all original family members, so the note that David leaves, post-concert, is quite brutal, begging Martin not to try to find him again. Martin’s wife Helen sums it up this way: “It’s probably the only unselfish thing he ever did.”)
Throughout the film I looked forward to the arrival on the scene of Clive Owen as the much-sought-after David, because at least the slow-moving scenes of violin-playing might give way to some masculine eye candy. There was one interesting and entertaining violin-playing scene staged in a bunker during the blitzkrieg, where David and another promising virtuoso violinist play. Think “Dueling Banjos,” only with violins. Musically, an “A.” Visually, most of the time with the violins, not so much.
Imagine the disappointment when David is found after a 35-year search covering 3 continents and:
(1) his beard makes him appear to be a woodsman who has felled one too many trees
(2) he is an even bigger SOB than when he left Martin’s father in the lurch, which may (or may not) have led to Martin’s father’s death 2 months later from a stroke and financial losses incurred
(3) David does not even invite Martin into his home, after 35 years, and
(4) David takes Martin to a synagogue where we learn the true story of why David didn’t show up for the concert on that fateful 1951 evening. Later, after delivering on the 35-year-old debt of a subsequent concert (which we also watch onscreen), David disappears again, leaving behind his violin and a note asking that he never be contacted again.
So that’s the kind of treatment one hopes to receive from their last living relative on the planet. Right?
The true story of where Martin went instead of the concert hall explains the film’s title, “The Song of Names,” which has to do with a Jewish tradition where 5 rabbis memorized the names of all those who died at the German prison camps and, through oral tradition, pass them down first through singing the names and, later, by writing them down. The time required by 5 rabbis to read the many names of those killed in the concentration camps is 5 days, singing around the clock. There is also a bit of a twist in the story that David reveals to Martin, but it is revealed too late to save us from boredom consisting of watching people play the violin for 113 minutes.
The solo virtuoso violin playing for real, done by Ray Chen, is excellent. The Budapest Symphony sounds wonderful. You can hear Eddie Izzard for a nano-second, pretending to be a BBC broadcaster covering the night of the first concert. The film is based on the acclaimed novel by Norman Lebrecht.
If you don’t love music and violin-playing, which are superbly performed in the film, why are you writing this piece of criticism? You should attend a Hollywood film.