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The Wisdom of 'Solomon & Gaenor'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2000


    'Solomon & Gaenor'
Nia Roberts and Ioan Guffrudd in "Solomon and Gaenor."
Can this couple be saved?

She's pregnant, by him. But she hasn't told him.

He's Jewish. But he hasn't told her.

Oh. And it's 1911. And it's Wales. And they're not married.

That's the gist of "Solomon and Gaenor," a compelling and finely crafted film that fuses "Romeo and Juliet" with "How Green Was My Valley" and a little of "Sunshine" and "Fiddler on the Roof." It may sound strange, but it feels extremely fresh as it plays on-screen.

Solomon (the handsome young Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd) is the pacman, or rather, the pacman's son. (Pacman: wandering cloth merchant whose clientele comprises the poor, embittered coal miners of Wales's scattered villages.) One day he spies Gaenor (the delicately beautiful Nia Roberts), who in turn spies him. Those damn kids! Hormones fire, lips lick, swallows are dryly swallowed, and you know they would start necking if they could but find a drive-in. Eventually, drive-ins being 30 years in the future, they find a riverbed, then an abandoned barn.

But do not understand this movie too easily; it's not just that torrent of explosive tender passion and touching called Young Love. It happens in a world and the world, as worlds tend to be, is not particularly interested in the wanton heart of youth.

In the larger sense, both are members of tribes, insulated not merely from each other, but from the world at large. In his home, Solomon speaks Yiddish and is instructed in Judaism (his grandfather is a rabbi); under his stout British wool suit he always wears a traditional fringed undergarment. In her home, Gaenor speaks Welsh, goes to church and hears stern temperance lectures about the evils of alcohol and sex, while a pall of economic uncertainty hangs everywhere.

And each, furthermore, is warned against the dangers of assimilation. The elders of each tribe may be brutish and insensitive, but they are also cunning: They know that when its boundaries break down, their way of life is essentially finished.

Alas, the necking kids know nothing of this. Each only knows that the other is a soul mate.

It doesn't take much imagination to see where the movie is going; its pleasures aren't so much in the inevitable plot complications (her antisemitic brother; his reluctance to admit his Jewish identity), but in the passion of the performances and the spare beauty of the elegant framing and photography.

The writer-director, Paul Morrisson, is making a feature debut here; it's extraordinarily assured, particularly in the way he walks delicately on that thin fissure between drama and melodrama, between pathos and bathos.

And he has a fine eye for the accumulated details that can make a world come alive: the perpetual grime under the fingernails of the miners that no scrubbing will eliminate; the weight of dense chilly fog drifting in from the mountains; the juxtaposition between the beauty of the green hills and the industrial structure of the mining engineering and the little stone towns of row houses that people such places. At the same time he quickly conveys the contrast between the fiercely hierarchical Welsh mining family and the far more verbal culture of the Jewish home.

And he's especially good at re-creating things long forgotten; the fear of pogroms in England, for one. He really makes you feel the sudden brittle fear of the Jewish family when antisemitism is unleashed during the anguish of a strike (because the Welsh have all been told it's Jewish usurers secretly manipulating things for their own profit, which would come as a surprise to Solomon's impoverished family).

SOLOMON AND GAENOR (R, 100 minutes) – Contains sexuality, nudity and harsh language.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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