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SAN SEBASTIÁN 2019 Out of Competition

Review: The Song of Names

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- San Sebastián’s closing-night film by François Girard is a prestige drama starring Tim Roth and Clive Owen, which tells a tale of friendship and music

Review: The Song of Names
Clive Owen in The Song of Names

The Red Violin (1998) director François Girard has made an austere tale about friendship that has World War II and the Holocaust as a backdrop. The Song of Names [+see also:
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is a rather dull adaptation of Norman Lebrecht's award-winning novel featuring perfunctory performances by headliners Tim Roth and Clive Owen. The closing-night film of the San Sebastián Film Festival has some lovely music scored by the legendary Howard Shore, but this does little to deafen the dull narrative notes.

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The action begins in 1951. A concert is about to take place, except the star violinist, Dovidl Rapoport, is a no-show and disappears. His best friend, Martin Simmons, is crestfallen. The story then jumps to 1986, as Martin is judging a music competition in Newcastle, where he witnesses a contestant using the same technique as Dovidl once did. This moment sparks off memories in Martin, who decides to find out what happened to Dovidl, a laborious journey that takes him to Warsaw and New York. The action continually jumps back and forth in time, revealing in flashback how Dovidl was sent to England to live with Martin's family just before the onset of the war. Martin's father was asked to protect Dovidl and train him on the violin.

Gerran Howell plays Martin and Jonah Hauer-King essays Dovidl between the ages of 17 and 21. Representing the boys between the ages of nine and 13 are Misha Handley and Luke Doyle as the violin prodigy. Roth is the adult Martin and Owen his best friend.

This search leads Martin to begin to understand the trauma that Dovidl managed to conceal at the time, with the outbreak of World War II and the Final Solution. It's this knowledge that helps Martin finally comprehend why the young prodigy didn't turn up to his first concert all those years ago. In the meantime, many other questions are raised but go unanswered. The production values of the film, especially the scenes during the war, are high.

The Holocaust is used as a shorthand for tragedy. Real-life knowledge of the horrors of the gas chambers create sympathy for the characters to a certain extent, but the director doesn't do the hard work of generating empathy for the two older versions of the characters with the story told in flashbacks. What we see from their childhood doesn't really give sufficient rationale as to why Martin would go to so much trouble so long afterwards. Even odder is how Dovidl so happily acquiesces to Martin's wishes when they do finally meet. The idea that he has an obligation to Martin's father isn't developed sufficiently to make it believable that he would comply so quickly and easily. Owen's not got much to work with, so perhaps it's a good thing that he can hide his monotone performance behind his beard. It feels like a cinema adaptation that takes the scenes from the page but loses the sentiment. The irony of this is that this is a drama about a man realising 35 years too late that he didn't have enough empathy for his childhood friend. The feeling is mutual, but that's clearly not the director's intention.

The Song of Names is a Canadian-Hungarian-UK production by Robert Lantos, Lyse Lafontaine and Nick Hirschkorn. It is a Serendipity Point Films, Lyla Films, Ingenious Media and HanWay Films presentation in association with Feel Films, Proton Cinema and Film House Germany. HanWay Films has the international rights.

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