The action begins in 1951. On the eve of his debut concert performance, for a packed house, including kings and queens, Polish musical prodigy Dovidl Rapoport (Jonah Hauer-King) disappears. His adopted English family, including brother Martin (Gerran Howell) is distraught. They first met Dovidl as a nine-year-old who, when he moved in with them to study violin, declared, “If I snore I snore in tune. I am a musician!” The family kept him safe from the Nazi threat and groomed him for greatness.
Cut to 1986. Martin, now played by Tim Roth, is adjudicating a music competition in Northern England when a contestant uses a technique that seems very familiar. Thoughts of his erstwhile brother have consumed Martin and this simple but unique method of rosining the bow sets Martin on a journey that will take him to Poland and finally New York City. His quest has one simple purpose, to find out why Dovidl (played as an adult by Clive Owen) left.
As a celebration of music “The Song of Names” is terrific. Legendary composer Howard Shore has written new music, including the “Song of Names,” a moving recitation of the names of all the Jewish people killed at Treblinka. It’s a powerful moment, solemn and heartrending, that is the film’s absolute high point. More playful is a violin duel in a London air raid shelter between the nine-year-old Dovidl and a teenage rival. Both scenes display the power of music to move us, whether it is to tears or to applause.
It’s the detective story that falls short. Clues that have eluded Martin for decades suddenly become obvious and the journey, such that it is, seems less like a mystery and more like a game of “Where’s Waldo.” More intrigue may have brought with it more emotional weight.
“The Song of Names” is a handsome, if somewhat dreary historical drama that does hit the emotional notes it needs to succeed.