TORONTO — Adapting a historical novel for the screen is tricky enough but tackling the sprawling music-driven book “The Song of Names” and the mournful melody that fuels it posed unique hurdles for veteran filmmaker Francois Girard.
It helped that the acclaimed Quebec director was well-versed in the art of melding music with visual flair — his oeuvre includes the classical film features ”The Red Violin” and “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.” For the stage, he has directed the operas of Richard Wagner for the Canadian Opera Company, Festival d’opera de Quebec, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Girard said he spent more than a year plotting how to dramatize the book by Norman Lebrecht. It traces the emotional and religious turmoil of a boy whose family is killed in the Holocaust and culminates in a doleful violin piece that lays bare his immense sorrow as an adult.
“There’s no question that the central argument is musical, in the sense the title scene is a musical scene, the ‘Song of Names’ is that scene,” Girard said of the emotional climax, composed by Oscar-winning Toronto-bred musician Howard Shore.
Clive Owen plays the adult version of Dovidl, a violin prodigy who first appears onscreen as a 10-year-old who leaves his family to pursue a music career in London just before the Germans invade Poland.
Real-life British violinist Luke Doyle plays the young Dovidl, while Misha Handley is 10-year-old Martin, the son of the music publisher who takes in the young virtuoso.
The boys forge an intense bond but that’s shattered when Dovidl disappears shortly before helming his first concert performance at age 21. Tim Roth plays the adult Martin, who is haunted by the mystery of what happened to his friend and is still angered by the seeming betrayal of his family.
The duo’s relationship is portrayed by a total of six different actors as their childhood, teen years and adulthood unfold onscreen.
“Jokingly I was calling it the Six Pack, where you have Clive Owen and Tim Roth and then two younger pairs and that is the core, the centre of the film,” Girard said in September after the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“My main challenge was to create the two characters and three actors and then three pairs — so you need to find chemistry between Misha and Luke, Jonah (Hauer-King) and Gerran (Howell), Clive and Tim. That probably took — that alone in comparison with everything else — maybe half of my energy in writing, casting and then prep (and) editing.”
Doyle acknowledged that learning to act was “very difficult” but he drew on his experience as a musician to fuel his performance.
Thankfully, he had an ally in Girard who understood how to communicate in musical terms, even going so far as to guide the scene as if he was an orchestra conductor.
“Dovidl has this kind of … rhythm to him,” explained Doyle.
“And that’s the same for a scene because Francois always said in a scene that it always needs to flow. And that was partly why he would conduct — so that it wouldn’t get kind of stuck and rigid. It always had this nice flow to it and that was reminiscent of Dovidl as a character.”
Girard made sure that each actor embodied that same flow for continuity’s sake, added Hauer-King.
“We spent a lot of time together before we started filming — Clive and Luke and I — just talking about who we thought Dovidl was and where he was coming from. That was really helpful because we all brought our own interpretations and understandings of who it was and it gave us a kind of collective vision for who he should be.”
Hauer-King added that he and Owen studied the violin in order to play many of the violin scenes themselves. However, their key violin parts — as well as young Dovidl’s virtuoso performances — are performed by acclaimed violinist Ray Chen.
Hauer-King said he was immediately drawn to the material and felt he understood what it meant to be displaced. He said his Jewish grandfather left Poland in the 1930s for Toronto, later settling in San Francisco where Hauer-King’s mother was raised. Hauer-King then grew up in London.
“It’s a film about lineage and our past and our history but it’s very much about memory living in the present,” said Hauer-King, whose upcoming roles include Prince Eric in Disney’s live-action “Little Mermaid” remake.
“It’s an important time to be telling these kinds of stories because it bears huge relevance towards what’s going on now. I think these stories are always relevant but it feels like a good time to be telling them.”
“The Song of Names” opens Wednesday in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, and expands across Canada on Jan. 10.