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The Song of Names

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
The Song of Names Movie Poster Image
Touching but slow mystery/drama about impact of Holocaust.
  • PG-13
  • 2019
  • 113 minutes

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We think this movie stands out for:

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Priorities shift when we're faced with a traumatic event; we don't all process grief and loss the same way. Perseverance is a theme.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Film is steeped in Jewish culture, traditions, rituals. On brink of WWII, a British family takes in a musically gifted Jewish Polish boy and treats him like their own. Preteen boys steal with glee and justification.

Violence

One character expresses his anger by punching another in the face. Depiction of the Blitz, with Londoners joined together in shelters during an air raid. The arm of a dead body is seen protruding from rubble of a bombed home.

Sex

The term "getting laid" is used and is an important plot point, but there's no visual image of that whatsoever. Boys look at playing cards illustrated with drawings of naked women.

Language

"Crap" is said several times. Also one use of "bastard," plus "stupid," "t-ts," and "f--king" (as an adjective).

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Smoking. Wine consumed during reflective moments. Character jokes that, to relax before a stressful event, he's going to get drunk.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Song of Names is a somber drama about remembrance set in an environment of classical music and against the backdrop of World War II. The story jumps between three different timelines, one of which centers on the two main characters as preteen boys, who are shown stealing with both glee and justification. Characters drink, and -- as the film takes place from 1939 to 1986 -- they also smoke. Other than one use of "f--k," swearing is mild ("crap," "bastard"). WWII is part of the plot; Londoners huddle in shelters during a Blitz air raid, and the arm of a dead body is seen protruding from the rubble of a bombed home. A main character vents his anger by punching a man in the face. While it may be difficult for teens to grasp the nuances of the adult characters' decisions, the film is touching and presents some beautiful ideas about loss, grief, trauma, and perseverance. And it thoughtfully showcases Jewish culture, including rituals, traditions, and history. 

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What's the story?

Adapted from the Norman Lebrecht novel, THE SONG OF NAMES is about Dovidl, a Jewish child and violin virtuoso whose Polish father leaves him in the care of an affluent London family at the beginning of World War II. A decade later, Dovidl disappears on the night of his most important concert. Thirty-five years later, his foster brother, Martin (Tim Roth), finds a clue that Dovidl may be alive, so he starts searching for his beloved friend -- as well as much needed answers.

Is it any good?

This film is heartfelt and touching, but it isn't necessarily moving. That's not necessarily a bad thing (not everyone really wants a good cry), and the movie does manage to extend understanding. While films remembering the Holocaust aren't unusual, those that show us how the pain of that loss of life manifests in an individual person are far more unusual. We meet Dovidl (called "David") as a child (played at this age by Luke Doyle) whose father makes an impossible decision out of love and sacrifice. As the war wages, David doesn't know whether his Jewish family is dead or alive, and The Song of Names plays out the kind of behavior that can result from that kind of psychological unrest. After David's disappearance, Martin feels a similar unrest because he doesn't know what happened to David.

Unfortunately, when Martin eventually does learn the truth, he doesn't seem to be satisfied -- a feeling most viewers will second. The film's complex storyline, which jumps back and forth between multiple timeframes, falls victim to the usual book-adaptation trap: There's just too much to condense into two hours to do the story justice. As it stands, it's hard to get attached to either David or Martin, even though the talent of the young actors who play them as children is outstanding and their scenes are the most engaging. As young Martin, newcomer Misha Handley very effectively transmits the jealousy a child would feel toward an interloper suddenly added to his life -- taking over half his bedroom and most of his father's attention. But he soon embraces David as a friend, brother, and fellow mischief maker. The matters that relate to the movie's title are profound, but it's hard to appreciate the direction David takes with his transformative experience. At the last minute, we're informed that David may be sympathetic, but he's never been a great guy; that type of complex, highly flawed character plays well in books, but in movies, we wonder why we've spent two hours tracking down a man who we're told was never worth our time.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about survivor's guilt and its role in The Song of Names. What does that term mean, and what impact does it have in The Song of Names?

  • Does the film make you feel sympathy, empathy, or compassion for David? What's the difference? What do you think of how the film depicts Martin's curiosity and perseverance and the self-control exerted by David as an adult? Do you agree with how they applied these traits and skills?

  • What do you think life might have been like for a kid in WWII-era London? What do you know about the war? How does this film compare to other movies about that time?

  • How does the movie depict Orthodox Judaism? Do you think David's decision on how to live his adult life was warranted? Can you think of other movies that depict this aspect of Judaism? Why is representation important?

  • What are some examples of behavior that Martin and David engage in that we might now deem as unacceptable? Does the film justify that behavior? Do you think it's OK in this context?

Movie details

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