(director: François Girard; screenwriters: Jeffrey Caine/based on the novel by Norman Lebrecht; cinematographer: David Franco; editor: Michel Arcand; music: Howard Shore ; cast: Tim Roth (Martin ), Clive Owen (Dovidl ), Eddie Izzard (Radio Presenter), Catherine McCormack (Helen), Stanley Townsend (Gilbert Simmonds), Jakub Kotynski (Zygmunt Rapoport), Jonah Hauer-King (Dovidl 17-23), Gerran Howell (Martin 17-21), Luke Doyle (Dovidl 9-13 ), Misha Handley (Martin 9-13 ); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Robert Lantos, Lyse Lafontaine, Nick Hirschkorn; A Sony Pictures Classics; 2019-Canada)

“The earnest piece is a contrivance, whose arty designs are merely pretensions.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Canadian filmmaker François Girard (“The Red Violin”/“Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” ) directs this somber Holocaust-themed drama about a Jewish violin prodigy who escapes the Holocaust in Poland just in time to emigrate to London. It’s based on the novel by the music critic Norman Lebrecht, and is written by Jeffrey Caine. The earnest piece is a contrivance, whose arty designs are merely pretensions, the execution is clumsy, the acting is wooden (except for an understated Tim Roth) and the narrative is lacking in clarity over timelines.

At the onset of World War II, in the late 1930s, the Polish Jew Zygmunt Rapoport (Jakub Kotynski) brings his 9-year-old son Dovidl (Luke Doyle), a violin prodigy, to London in hopes of finding a Jewish home where Dovidl would be safe from the Nazis.

The gentile music publisher Gilbert Simmonds (Stanley Townsend) offers to take him in. Zygmunt accepts and returns to Warsaw, leaving Dovid behind. Back home in Warsaw,  Zygmunt, his wife and Dovidl’s two sisters can’t escape the Nazi invasion.

Dovidl in London shares a room with his host’s 13-year-old son Martin (Misha Handley at 13, then Gerran Howell as a young man and Tim Roth when middle-aged). The kids initially don’t get along because the guest acts obnoxious but soon they make a real sibling connection.

After the war, there’s no word on the Rapoports. Dovidl (now played by Jonah Hauer-King) dedicates himself to the violin and renounces his religion.

In 1951, we learn that Gilbert has spent his life savings to launch his ward’s career, but on the opening night in London, the 21-year-old Dovidl doesn’t show up and is mysteriously never heard from again.

In the 1980s Martin, now in his fifties, is employed as a music teacher in London. While auditioning a young violin student, he becomes convinced he acts like Dovidl by the way he makes the same gestures with the rosin to the bow. Though Martin’s wife (Catherine McCormack) begs him to let it go, he can’t. So he tracks him from Poland to New York and back to London until he meets the ragged-looking Dovidl (now played by Clive Owen) and the mystery of his disappearance is revealed.

The film, ostensibly about survivor’s guilt, has one very moving scene set at the Nazi death camp Treblinka, where the visitors walk through the standing stones (placed there so one may “Never Forget” the death camps). Shore’s lively score adds to the emotional charge of the scene and his original compositions give the uneven but tasteful film something to be proud of. It should be noted that the “Song of Names” refers to a mournful Jewish prayer, a days-long recitation of the names of the Holocaust victims set to music, and this sacred music becomes the film’s motif.

REVIEWED ON 12/27/2019  GRADE: C+