*** Stars
(US 2000)
Rated R



Starring:
Ioan Gruffudd, Nia Roberts, Sue Jones Davies, William Thomas, Mark Lewis Jones

Directed byPaul Morrisson

Writing Credits: Paul Morrisson

Sony Pictures Classics * 102 minutes

Screened at: Rialto Theatre, Ridgefield Park, NJ

In 1997's TITANIC, a young Welsh actor slipped nearly unnoticed past all except those few young women whose tastes run more toward the dark and brooding rather than the blond and saintly. This young man had little to do except bring Bernard Hill a cup of tea, give orders, and rescue Kate Winslet from the icy North Atlantic. But Ioan Gruffudd, he of the unpronounceable name, made a bit of a splash, so to speak, and a reputation that continued to grow, following his starring role in HORATIO HORNBLOWER. Now, Ioan Gruffudd gets his own chance to portray the guy who gets, and loses, the girl, in SOLOMON AND GAENOR.

SOLOMON AND GAENOR, which opened in the U.K. last year, and was a 1999 nominee for best foreign-language film, is yet another doomed love story, but with an unusual backdrop. Set against the coal and railway strikes and the Tredegar anti-Jewish riots of 1911, it is the story of doomed love between Jewish fabric merchant Solomon (Gruffudd) and Gaenor (newcomer Nia Roberts). Gaenor is a good churchgoing girl from a mining family, the daughter and brother of the kind of rough-hewn men with chronic coal dust in the crevices of their skin, whose lives consist of filthy, degrading work, pints at the local pub, and asserting their masculinity at home. The women live lives of similar desperation, maintaining their modest homes with an endless round of backbreaking work. Solomon is a "pacman", a door-to-door peddler of fabrics, whose parents are relatively prosperous merchants in the Welsh town of Tredegar. Solomon and Gaenor meet cute (he makes her a dress out of red fabric that's completely unsuitable to the way she lives), fall in love, make love, are faced with familial disapproval and resulting violence, and have the inevitable tragic ending; an ending that's a foregone conclusion from the moment the opening credits unfold.

If all this sounds familiar, it's arguably just another retelling of Romeo and Juliet, and as such, should be met with a yawn and a walk right past the theatre to the ice cream parlor. But interfaith love is a subject close to the heart of screenwriter/director Paul Morrison, and he infuses this age-old material with not just a new spin, but a passion born of personal experience. Because of the personal resonance of the subject matter, Morrison is able to lift his film above the ho-hum familiarity of the subject matter.

Morrison is aided by the uniformly extraordinarily strong performances of his strong, if relatively unknown on these shores, cast. Gruffudd, who has shown perhaps a bit too much stolid stoicism in his previous roles, comes alive for the first time on film as Solomon. With his lovely mass of black curls, puppylike brown eyes, and wonderful facial bone structure, he stands as a sensitive contrast to the brutish red-haired louts that populate Gaenor's home and social circle (even if he does have an alarming resemblance to Michael Jackson in some shots). Gruffudd beautifully portrays both Solomon's ardor and his ever-present awareness of the hopelessness of his situation, retaining our sympathy even after it becomes clear that Solomon is no romance novel hero. In fact, Solomon is a bit of a cad, though his caddishness is born of weakness, not of malice. When he realizes, after their first tryst in a hayloft, that Gaenor is no virgin, he turns away from her, in a scene that ought to make any woman who's ever been subject to the "double standard after the fact" cringe. While Gaenor risks familial disapproval by inviting Solomon over to tea with her family, he refuses to show the same courage by reciprocating.

If Gruffudd is terrific, Nia Roberts is extraordinary. A young woman whose face seems at first to nothing special, but whose beauty shines right through her skin, she's a perfectly unglamorous Gaenor. Roberts' best scenes are when she doesn't speak, allowing her face to do the talking. Once the door is opened, Gaenor is clearly the aggressor in this relationship, a woman of strong passions whose broken engagement, one presumably consummated, has left her clearly hungry for more, a hunger not met by her other suitor, the Sunday school teacher Noah (Steffan Rhodri). When Noah, who presents as a friend in whom Gaenor can confide, betrays her by exposing her pregnancy to the church fellowship, Gaenor is banished, but not before a wonderful scene in which she stands before the congregation, her face reflecting at once fear and defiance. Her love scenes with Gruffudd are beautifully and artistically rendered, and show what adult content can do when it is not gratuitous, but is part of the artistry of filmmaking and takes place in the service of the story.

The rest of the cast serves as an effective backdrop to the doomed romance, particularly William Thomas as Gaenor's father, who tries valiantly to maintain his family's pride in the face of the relentless adversity that's thrown at him. Steffan Rhodri, as the hypocritically pious Noah, gives a creepily nuanced portrayal of a man who gives lip service to God, but ultimately behaves in a most un-Christian way. Mark Lewis Jones, in the Tybalt-ian role of Crad, Gaenor's drunken hooligan of a brother, oozes suppressed malevolence, particularly in a scene in which he introduces the soft-handed Sam/Solomon to his drinking buddies at the local pub. It is a deep hatred that explodes when . Maureen Lipman, as Solomon's archetypical Jewish mother, has an amazing scene in which she tells Gaenor in no uncertain terms that the latter will never see her son again, and that her unborn child is not his problem. Solomon's parents seem cruel, but they are not unrealistically portrayed as Jewish parents who see marriage to an outsider as not just unworkable, but catastrophic.

The setting of the film is what sets SOLOMON AND GAENOR apart from similarly-themed films. Meticulous attention is paid to the language, spirituality, and contrasting socioeconomic and family lives of the star-crossed lovers. That such close attention is paid particularly to Jewish ritual is particularly refreshing, particularly after Boaz Yakin's view of Orthodox Jewish life, A PRICE ABOVE RUBIES, in which an infant is named after a living rabbi and a woman is told she is going to hell for eating pork (Jews name children after the dead, and there is no concept of Hell in Judaism, at least not in the fire-and-brimstone Christian sense). Only a scene in which Solomon is seated with the women in shul rings false.

The cinematography is impeccable. The indoor shots are all lit like a Dutch painting; the man rough-hewn and brutish, the women serene and long-necked; all greens and blues. The love scenes are fittingly suffused with a golden glow, contrasted to the relentless drab of the outdoor scenes.

This is the first, and undoubtedly the only film ever to be made using three languages -- English, Welsh, and Yiddish. The use of language adds immeasurably to the film, particularly when Gaenor asks Solomon to speak to her and their unborn child in his own language, ultimately adopting it as her own tongue in speaking to him. A heartbreaking scene of a Jewish quasi-wedding under an improvised chuppah made from Solomon's prayer shawl, demonstrates that the gentile Gaenor is Solomon's catalyst for regaining his pride in his own heritage.

While the mining strikes of the early 20th century are well-documented, few people are aware of there even having been a Jewish community in Wales. This film portrays well the mutually beneficial economic relationship that existed between the Jewish community and the mining families, a tenuous connection broken when blamemongering for the miner's worsening plight begins. It's an eerie depiction that echoes the pogroms of Russia and is prescient of Hitler's Germany, right down to a shockingly loud and disturbingly photographed destruction of a store window -- Kristallnacht in Wales.

It's clear, watching this film, that Morrison has seen Michael Winterbottom's criminally underappreciated JUDE at least 157 times (which means I'm not the only one). From the opening scenes of coal miners trudging home in the grey mud to their grey homes and grey wives after another hopeless day spent in the grey mines with grey dirt clinging to their skin, SOLOMON AND GAENOR has an undercurrent of futility, if not the outright misery that infused every minute of Winterbottom's film. At times, scenes have the unsettling feeling of seeming lifted outright from JUDE -- a scene in which a pig is butchered during the coal miner's strike; another in which Solomon stands on the street looking up into Gaenor's window as she undresses; another of the injured Solomon trudging through the snow to be reunited with his beloved. Yet because SOLOMON AND GAENOR depicts at least a few moments of joy, breaking up the relentlessly drab, dour futility, combined with the predictability of the story, it has less of a devastating emotional impact than it might have. However, the fact that SOLOMON AND GAENOR will not cause the viewer to burst into tears for weeks thereafter, detracts in no way from its worthiness as an example of the power of cinematic art and performance.

SOLOMON AND GAENOR official site

 

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