Imagine Romeo and Juliet without the chipper bounce, and you’ve got Solomon and Gaenor. Tragedy looms for these two star-crossed lovers from the opening frame of Paul Morrisson’s gloomy and melancholy film — tragedy you know they’ve no hope of escaping — and yet this isn’t a relentless bummer of a story. Instead, it’s a wonderfully morose, rainy-day kind of movie, one to watch curled up on the couch with a cat and a cup of tea. Classical and literate, it lets you pretend you’re edifying yourself while you have a good cry. Kinda like a Brontë novel.
Rural Wales in 1911 is not a pleasant place. The dust of coal is everywhere — coating the buildings and cobblestone streets — and the wild countryside is frequently drenched in rain. It’s a dark and grim world, one home to a culture unfriendly to women, who are little more than slaves to their men, be they husbands, fathers, or brothers. Twentyish Gaenor (Nia Roberts) draws hot baths for her father, Idris (William Thomas: Catfish in Black Bean Sauce), and brother, Crad (Mark Lewis Jones) — hard work, when the water must be pumped from the well and heated, a pitcher at a time, over an open flame — massaging their shoulders to relax them after a long day mining coal. The equally backbreaking and dangerous work of women earns no such reward, of course. If there is any joy in her life, it comes through her work at her church, helping Sunday school teacher Noah (Steffan Rhodri) keep the little buggers awake through their lessons. Noah has an eye for her, too, though she doesn’t seem to care much for him.
New joy comes when she meets “Sam” (Ioan Gruffudd: Warriors, Horatio Hornblower), a salesman from another village hawking cloth, thread, needles, and the like. She is intrigued by the handsome, mannered young man, so unlike the crude and illiterate men by whom she is usually surrounded, like her father and brother. And “Sam” is instantly taken with the shy and pretty Gaenor.
The problem is that Sam is not Sam — he is Solomon, a Jew, in a culture no more friendly to Jews than it is to women, where his kind are ridiculed and beaten and see their shops looted with frightening regularity. So Solomon keeps his secret even from Gaenor as they come together secretly for whispered declarations of love and, eventually, passionate lovemaking.
And what saves Solomon and Gaenor from being too studied and calculated a film — this is, after all, not much more than a retelling of Romeo and Juliet transported to turn- of- the- century Wales — is passion. Not just that of Gruffudd and Roberts, who smolder together onscreen, not only when lying together naked, limbs casually entwined, in the hay of their barn-loft rendezvous, but also in their very public exchanges of glances burning with ardor. Their obvious desire for each other raises the ire of Crad, who despises Solomon from their first meeting, a hatred he expresses violently; Jones makes Crad a terrifying presence, the antithesis of the love Solomon and Gaenor represent. And Noah is angered, too — he sees now why his advances to Gaenor were spurned, and in one short but powerful scene, he takes advantage of his position in the church to unleash his jealousy with a vengeance upon Gaenor and her family; Rhodri is terrifying in his own way, his Noah a malevolence that uses what should be compassionate authority to hurt.
It’s not only Gaenor’s religious community that turns cold. Solomon, once he reveals his love for Gaenor to his family, finds himself all but banished, and forbidden to have anything to do with her. Solomon and Gaenor both discover that what had seemed to be warm and accepting love can quickly turn cold and controlling as soon as the expectations of their families and communities are defied, and the damp and dreary world around them is soon mirrored in the now unwelcoming atmosphere of home.
It’s their harsh world that immediately dooms these two delicate people and their love for each other. Soon after they first meet, Solomon sews a dress for Gaenor, as a gift, from a pretty fabric she liked but deemed too fancy for her rough life. It’s a romantic but senseless gesture on his part — where would she wear such a garment? — but that’s what makes Solomon and Gaenor so sweet and ultimately so sad. Like a flower pushing its way up through a crack in concrete, it’s cause enough for joy that passion blossomed, if ever so briefly, in so emotionally desolate a place.