True romance

Lead actors enliven Solomon and Gaenor

The story of proverbial star-crossed lovers in which earthly devices struggle to keep them apart even as romantic ones strive to bring them together, Solomon and Gaenor is lucky enough to feature two appealing leads who make one forget the frequency with which such romantic fables are told.

Though set in 1911 Wales, Solomon and Gaenor’s clunky, off-putting title may sound to some like a dramatization of some obscure Bible passage. Seen through cinematographer Nina Kellgren’s eyes, this is not necessarily the place one would expect love to bloom; a glum village of row houses swathed in shades of gray and blue, and its outlying moors comparably glum and overcast. A pervasive gloominess defines most of the film’s characters, too, except its lovers, who are like beacons of rosy idealism in the depressing fog.

Churchy Protestant coal miners and Jewish merchants are the mismatched, warring Capulets and Montagues of director Paul Morrison’s tragedy. Solomon (Ioan Gruffudd) is the dark, handsome stranger in town who sells his family’s fabrics door-to-door in a neighboring village, and Gaenor (Nia Roberts) is the meek, delicate gentile who begins to succumb to his charms during his increasingly frequent visits to her doorstep.

Morrison’s glimpses into Solomon’s and Gaenor’s respective home lives are fairly dismal — both marked by the difficult economic circumstances of the day and the stranglehold of family obligation. Solomon is incensed by his grandfather’s constant praying and a pious younger brother, while Gaenor is a domestic laborer at her mother’s side, tending to her gruff father and brother, whose coal mine filth she washes away each evening in a huge cast iron tub by the fire. Both seem to have every reason to seek escape into another reality.

Responding in part to the local sport of anti-Semitism and his own estrangement from the religious gloom of his family, Solomon courts Gaenor as Sam Livingstone and hides his Jewish identity, even when Gaenor’s thug brother Crad (Mark Lewis Jones) becomes suspicious of the new boy in town.

Morrison invests Solomon and Gaenor’s budding relationship with genuine tenderness and affection as they rendezvous for romantic tumbles in an out-of-the-way haystack. But he also lays the groundwork for a domino effect of small disasters that come as no real surprise as the drama progresses. The town’s coal miners are striking and looking for a scapegoat for their economic troubles; Solomon becomes increasingly neurotic about hiding his religion from Gaenor, even at the expense of their relationship; and Mother Nature - that great doyenne of dramatic topsy-turvy — delivers the inevitable payback for all those rolls in the hay.

The predictability of Solomon and Gaenor’s plot does not necessarily impede its denouement, as both Solomon’s and Gaenor’s families begin to play the expected meddlesome, judgmental interference between the young lovers. Many circumstances pop up to further alienate the couple, contrivances which give the film the texture of pulpy melodrama crossed with the dire inevitability of disaster a la Thomas Hardy.

As Solomon, Ioan Gruffudd is believably conflicted; tortured by his hidden identity and suggesting a self-hatred so deep that hiding his Jewish origin becomes more important than intimacy with the woman he loves. At times, frightened by the escalating stakes of his love affair, Solomon’s instincts are as panicked and self-preserving as any contemporary teen’s. And despite her fragile, pale appearance, Gaenor reveals herself as a sexually aggressive girl who, in the midst of heartbreak, has a reserve of flinty determination and pride, unwilling to play submissive doormat or groveling love-drunk miss as Solomon’s increasingly opaque head games continue.

If it were not for such exceptional performances, Morrison’s film might register as yet another exotic twist on a classic Shakespearean set-up. As it is, Solomon and Gaenor manages, as its plot thickens and odds stack up against the lovers, to energize a familiar tale.