Monday 14 March 2022

Streaming on SBS On Demand - Rod Bishop ponders the fate of THE SONG OF NAMES (François Girard, Canada/Hungary, 2020)

When films bomb at the box office and with the critics, the reasons are usually fairly obvious. The likely culprits are scripts that fail to convince; unfocused and poor direction; actors struggling with characters the audience can’t identify with; subject matter that isn’t interesting enough for a couple of hours of your time; and failed exhibition and distribution strategies.

Then there are films like Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes    (1971), or more recently Xavier Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan (2018) and now, The Song of Names (2019), films that appear to have none of these faults but still become catastrophic box office failures.

The script for The Song of Names is solid enough and based on the well-regarded novel by Norman Lebrecht from 2003. It opens prior to the outbreak of WW2 as a British family hosts a young Jewish-Polish violin virtuoso (Dovidl) who shares a room with their son (Martin). Over the years, the boys become firm friends and, at the time Dovidl agrees to his debut concert in London with an orchestra in 1952, he has heard nothing, either during or after the war, about the fate of his Warsaw family. But on the night of the concert, Dovidl fails to turn up, (disappointing his packed, black-tie audience) and then promptly disappears for the next 35 years. Martin searches for Dovidl for over three decades and when he finally tracks him down, we learn the devastating truth behind the title The Song of Names.

Tim Roth and Clive Owen play the boys as adults; François Girard (The Red Violin) directs; there was more than $AU30 million to bring the story to the screen and Howard Shore contributes an exquisite musical score with the Australian-South Korean Ray Chen playing the violin solos. The first screenings were well received, some seeing the sumptuously mounted production as potential “Oscar bait” and the film sold to more than 30 territories.

Then everything went downhill. Fast. Total box office came in at an embarrassing $2 million and the 56 critics’ reviews aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes produced a poor 36% approval rating and it joined other films with the same modest score - Babes in ToylandBattle: Los AngelesErnest Saves Christmas and Fantastic Beasts 2.

A couple of issues emerge from the negative reviews. There is one undeniably brilliant and unforgettable sequence towards the end of the film. Some wonder why the rest of the film wasn’t as undeniably brilliant.

The second issue is linked with this. Whether as a precocious 10-year-old or a virtuoso teenager or an adult, Dovidl is by far the most interesting character. But he’s not the lead and Martin consumes far more screentime. I’m not sure whether this is a good enough reason to dislike a film. After all, I’ve never heard The Third Man dumped on because the most interesting character Harry Lime (Orson Welles) is barely on screen for 10 minutes.

So why do good films bomb? Jay Leno isn’t sure, but he has a humorous take: “Remember the good old days when the only bomb you had to worry about on the plane was the Rob Schneider movie”.

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