Tragedy and Circumstance
Set in South Wales in 1911, Paul Morrison’s Solomon & Gaenor narrates the ill-fated love affair between an Orthodox Jewish man and a Gentile woman during as time of mine strikes and anti-Semitic riots. Despite its references to these events, which might bring about economic and social change, the film never shows the town’s inhabitants confronting their employers or resolving these cultural conflicts. Instead, it focuses on how the characters remain prisoners to their impoverished environment as much as to their moral and religious beliefs.
Through both story and Nina Kellgren’s skillful cinematography, the film shows that Solomon (Ioan Gruffudd) and Gaenor (Nia Roberts) are defined by their different “spaces.” When the two first meet, Solomon is outside his neighborhood, selling fabric door-to-door. Gaenor, on the other hand, is framed within the doorway, and ultimately confined to her family home where she performs taxing household chores with her mother. Solomon passes as Gentile, telling Gaenor his name is Sam Livingstone and that he is English. After a few brief conversations about fabric, it’s obvious he’s smitten: using the red material she likes yet cannot afford to buy, Solomon sews Gaenor a beautiful dress. Following a few short meetings, Gaenor allows Solomon to enter her home, where she models her new dress for him. When her father startles them, the couple hides beside the stairwell, framed ominously by a doorway. Gaenor pushes Solomon out of the house, and while he stands alone in the street, the fate of their relationship is summed up in two shots: in the first, Solomon, always the outsider, stands in the street, gazing longingly at Gaenor as she undresses (the second shot, showing what he sees), perfectly centered within the window frame, hopelessly unattainable.
As much as it’s being touted as a Welsh Romeo and Juliet, Solomon & Gaenor never quite reaches the level of urgency wanting-to-die-rather-than-live-without-your-lover of the Bard’s beloved tragedy. Aside from longing gazes and tender post-coital whispers, Gruffudd and Roberts, both expressive actors, are given little in the way of dramatic development for their characters. When asked by her sister if Solomon plans to marry her, Gaenor asserts, “He needs me.” Unfortunately the film presents no visual or verbal motivation for this statement; up until this moment, the most Gaenor knows about Solomon or should I say, Sam is that he can sew, knows a few Welsh words, and is the son of an English railroad worker (yet another lie). In addition, as she notes coyly while they lay naked and entwined atop a bed of hay, he’s “different from other boys… even different down there.” Still, their relationship is based on shaky ground no deep conversations, no shared interests, no similar goals or aspirations, just a red dress and a series of fabrications. Gaenor learns about Solomon’s Jewishness only when she takes it upon herself to track him down and finds his home and family in the small Jewish settlement.
Rather than admit his real concern that he would not be accepted into her world, Solomon blames his family for his inability to stand up for what he wants: “They wouldn’t accept you,” he tells her. And instead of dealing with their cultural differences, the lovers decide to run away together. Needless to say, a series of unforeseen events prevents their escape. But the real tragedy is the film’s ultimate descent into the absurd, which includes every cliched plot device, from the girl’s family withholding love letters from her, to the boy’s near-fatal trek through severe winter weather and harsh terrain to reach his true love. I wondered if the tragic ending would ever end!
Although failing to construct a love story on par with that of Juliet and her Romeo, Morrison, a documentary filmmaker who also wrote the screenplay for Solomon & Gaenor, his first feature film, paints a compelling picture of the social and economic conditions of the time. He details both the Gentile and Jewish experiences in Wales at the turn of the century and presents each side’s similar response to adversity. The town’s gray skies, muddy streets, plain row houses, and dimly lit homes only add to the bleak outlook for each group. Gaenor’s family struggles with economic difficulties while her father and brother are on strike. Still, while the film mentions the miners’ strike several times, it never provides a sense of the hardships faced by the workers, nor any specific explanation for why they are on strike.
In turn, Solomon’s relatively wealthy family faces the imminent threat of anti-Semitic riots, numerous derogatory references to “Jew-boys,” and the difficulty of earning an honest living when they are looked upon as unsympathetic, money-hoarding, and dishonest individuals. Neither family is willing to set aside their cultural differences, or work towards understanding or compromise. The film presents both factions as ruthless and self-serving in their efforts to prove their superiority over the other. Gaenor’s brother, Crad (Mark Lewis Jones), resorts to violence, leading the riot that destroys Solomon’s family’s store; Solomon’s mother, Rezl (Maureen Lipman), brutally rejects Gaenor and the unborn grandchild, telling her not to ruin Solomon’s life, then offering her money to leave him alone. Both families take the “out of sight, out of mind” approach, sending Solomon to Cardiff and Gaenor to the countryside to give birth away from neighbors’ eyes.
As Romeo and Juliet’s doomed love affair is the model, you know that true love doesn’t conquer all. However, in Shakespeare’s mind, youthful passion did have the ability to foster healing, as the Capulets and Montagues finally set aside their prejudices, albeit in the face of death. Solomon & Gaenor‘s stoic ending suggests no such learning curve. If anything, it might make you reconsider the quick roll in the hay the next time a young handsome salesman stops by. As Solomon’s mother says to Gaenor, “Love, when you are young, comes and goes.” Unfortunately, heartache lasts a lifetime.