“The Song of Names” is a heartwarming film about a Jewish violin virtuoso who renounces his faith in the aftermath of the Holocaust, only to rediscover it when hearing a song of remembrance.
Violinist Dovidl Rapaport is shown in three stages of his life, the last as a Chasid played by Clive Owen. The Golden Globe- and Emmy Award-winning actor — and Academy Award nominee (“Closer”) — said he was more than a little surprised to be offered the role.
“Why me?” he recalled asking, with a chuckle, during a recent telephone interview.
Director Francois Girard approached Owen with the script, which the 55-year-old actor loved. But indeed, why cast a grizzled English actor as a Chasidic Jew?
“He told me I was the right guy,” said Owen, never one to be typecast.
Turns out that Girard was correct.
In “The Song of Names,” which opens in limited markets on Dec. 25, Owen excels in the complex role of a man torn between his talent and the need to remember.
Dovidl is a young boy when his father brings him from Poland to pre-war London to audition for music impresario Gilbert Simmonds, played by Stanley Townsend. Simmonds is so impressed with Dovidl’s talent and performance that he offers to board the youngster, allowing him access to England’s top violin instructors and saving him from the impending danger being posed by the Nazis to his homeland.
In the Norman Lebrecht novel on which the film is based, Simmonds is Jewish. But the character’s not Jewish in the film, rendering the sacrifices he makes on Dovidl’s behalf even greater.
Simmonds kashers his home, and even pays for the child’s Jewish education and bar mitzvah. This all creates tension with Gilbert’s son, Martin. That tension is made worse some years later when Dovidl disappears.
In 1951, Gilbert arranges a major debut concert for Dovidl. But the violinist doesn’t show up. Simmonds is financially ruined and dies several months later. Only years later does Martin (played by Tim Roth) find clues suggesting that Dovidl is still alive, and he follows them in what becomes an engaging globe-trotting mystery.
We learn later that en route to the concert, Dovidl has an epiphany. By chance, he stops off at a synagogue whose congregants are survivors of Treblinka, the camp where his family had been sent. The congregants had vowed to remember the names of those who did not make it. As the rabbi puts it, “These names are committed to memory through a song.”
Sitting in the shul, Dovidl hears the recitation of the names of his family members and realizes that all hope is gone. The concert suddenly seems utterly unimportant to him. (By the way, the evocative song, an original piece by veteran film composer Howard Shore, is already receiving Oscar buzz.)
Owen said he never had an epiphany quite like that but “fell in love with acting at an early age, after I did a school play. And I said, ‘That’s what I wanted to do, even though no one took me seriously.’”
Appearing in “The Song of Names,” he said, had a similar impact on him.
“It is so powerful and touching a movie, and of course that’s why I did the film,” Owen said. “Its message of remembrance impacted me from the moment I read the script.”
Born in a small village in central England, Owen had no exposure to Judaism as a young person. No Jewish families lived nearby, and there weren’t many Jews in his school. Anti-Semitism, he said, was something he had no experience with.
“I think it’s shocking that it’s on the rise,” Owen said. “That’s why a movie like this is so important.”
It’s also why he took particular care to be sure that his acting was correct in every detail. Jonah Howard-King, who plays Dovidl from ages 17 to 23, is Jewish, and Owen met with Howard-King’s rabbi to discuss aspects of the script.
He also did additional research, not only to get the religious details correct but the look, clothing and gestures.
“I was concerned that the look was right, that it was grounded,” Owen said. “I did not want it to be just Clive Owen in a black suit. This last section of the movie is the emotional arc of the story, and it was hugely important as such.”
In a climate of ongoing controversy about whether it is appropriate for actors to portray characters of different races and gender identities, Owen said he had no concern about portraying a Jew onscreen.
“I was so taken by the story that when someone asked me if it was appropriate for me to play the role, I was a little shocked,” Owen said. “It never occurred to me. But that’s why it became more important for me to do it right, to have it as authentic as possible.”
“The Song of Names” opens in limited markets on Christmas Day.
Curt Schleier writes for the JTA global news source.
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