AS DOOMED LOVERS go, the eponymous Solomon and Gaenor make the best of their damp, murky, discouraging surroundings. It's pre-WWI Wales and the colliers are about to go on strike, making everyone poorer and more miserable. This won't help the mining family of pretty young Gaenor, nor that of Solomon, the Jewish son of a petty merchant in the town over the hill. So what do the kids do? Fall in love, of course, despite their cultural and religious differences. (He disguises his identity with a false name.) We all know this sad, old story of forbidden romance, but it's always possible—and satisfying—to find a fresh retelling.
SOLOMON & GAENOR
written and directed by Paul Morrison with Ioan Gruffudd and Nia Roberts opens September 22 at Seven Gables
The Oscar-nominated S&G mostly succeeds in restaging its familiar tale, thanks mainly to its two believable leads. As shy Gaenor, Nia Roberts conveys a forthright sexuality mixed with the vulnerability of knowing how her affair could shame her family. Her big, brown eyes open wide with incredulity at the overtures from what—to her sheltered perspective—seems the embodiment of cosmopolitan charm. As bookish, responsible Solomon, Ioan Gruffudd doesn't just rely on his hunky image from the BBC Horatio Hornblower TV series. He's a Welshman, but speaks Yiddish convincingly, as Roberts does Welsh. (Fortunately for us, most of the dialogue's in English, although these scenes were also reshot in Welsh for the home market.)
Once together, their tentative ardor becomes uncontrollable, eliciting both audience sympathy and foreboding, since every great passion always contains its own undoing. Solomon's family becomes the target of anti-Semitic violence during the miners' strike and subsequent hard times; both their clans would be aghast to know of the interfaith relationship. It can't last, but they don't know that hard truth as we do.
First-time director Paul Morrison renders the inhospitable environment with suitably gray, gloomy light, mist, and rain. With such a simple plot (and flimsy supporting characters), he's content to make S&G a two-hander, simply concentrating on his lovers' inevitable path in all its details—including the obligatory hayloft scene—and predictable obstacles. Both lovers are stifled by the smothering traditions of their overbearing families and face social censure recalling Breaking the Waves and The Scarlet Letter. ("Don't you want to be a Jew anymore?" Solomon's brother asks.) Morrison uses the love story as a kind of test case for tolerance, which Gaenor eventually passes and her community naturally fails. Given its lack of eventfulness (or surprise), this sparse love story manages to be simultaneously moving and mundane.