Split between two timelines, The Song of Names follows the brotherly relationship between Martin, a wealthy British child during the Second World War and Dovidl, a Polish violin prodigy whose parents leave him in his family’s care. As the two boys grow into men, they form a familial bond. That is, until young Dovidl disappears before one of his most important violin recitals. Forty years later, as the elder Martin (Tim Roth) discovers his first clue as to what happened to his childhood best friend, he begins to unravel a mystery that not only speaks to his own life but helps explain the depth of the elder Dovidl’s (Clive Owen) heart and soul as well.
Directed by Francois Girard (Boychoir, The Red Violin), Song of Names is a fascinating journey into youthful innocence in the wake of cultural trauma. Moving effortlessly between 1940s London and the 1980s, the film recognizes the stirs and echoes that violence and death can leave behind, decades after the events take place. Featuring a strong cast across three generations, each actor playing Martin and Dovidl throughout the years brings solid and unique performances to the piece. However, while Roth and Owen are given their most interesting roles in years, the youth often steal the film from the veterans, especially the youngest team of Misha Handley and Luke Doyle.
At times, their brotherly tension plays out as a childhood version of Mozart and Salieri, brimming with subtle jealousy and arrogance. Even so, this angst is also counter-balanced with a deep love for one another that draws them together in the most difficult of circumstances. Most importantly, however, as the youngest incarnations of the characters, Handley and Doyle bring a youthful purity to their roles that highlights the subsequent damage of trauma. Despite their pettiness and brotherly squabbling, their relationship exists within a very specific and painful moment of history hat slowly drains them of their innocence, especially that of Dovidl. This becomes particularly evident when the two boys find a corpse on their way home after an air raid. In scenes such as this, the challenges of youth come face-to-face with the reality of war and their lives are transformed.
As the viewer moves back and forth through various timelines, they witness Davidl struggle to process the travesty of his family (not to mention his people). Interestingly, while Martin searches tireless to discover what happened to his brother, flashbacks set up the fact that Dovidl himself is asking the same sorts of questions as he attempts to process and understand his own life. As a young Jew living in England, the question of identity and his place in his culture are natural question. Although, issues of faith also remain at the forefront as Davidl attempts to understand how his own Jewishness and relationship to God could allow the types of oppression and pain that he has seen take place. (Without giving any spoilers, as the film draws to a close, the viewer begins to understand the remembrance and reclaiming associated with the titular song as well.)
At the same time, the viewer also watches as Martin, who comes from a wealthy British family, attempt to understand the journey that his brother has taken (both literally and figuratively) as an outsider. To him, his brother’s journey never quite makes sense. (After all, weren’t they from the same family?) As a result, Martin’s journey becomes one of comprehension and empathy as he learns the truth behind Davidl’s personal and emotional journey.
While the film’s mystery drives the narrative, it’s really the quest for identity that gives Song of Names its soul. Featuring solid performances from its entire cast, the film speaks to the ways that we grapple with both pain and personal history. As such, the parallel journeys of Martin and Dovidl not only demonstrate the trials of processing tragedy but also the challenges of understanding one another as well.
The Song of Names plays in theatres on December 25th, 2019.