Solomon and Gaenor

Released: 1999
Director: Paul Morrison
Writer: Paul Morrison
Producer: Sheryl Crown
Music: Ilona Sekacz

Ioan Gruffudd as Solomon
Nia Roberts as Gaenor
David Horovitch as Isaac (Solomon's father)
Maureen Lipman as Rezl (Solomon's mother)
William Thomas as Idris (Gaenor's father)
Sue Jones-Davies as Gwen (Gaenor's mother)
Mark Lewis Jones as Crad (Gaenor's brother)

Set in the industrial valleys of south Wales in 1911, Solomon & Gaenor tells the story of an ill-fated love affair between Solomon, a Jewish boy and Gaenor a Welsh girl. A sort of Welsh Romeo and Juliet but with Orthodox Jews and Welsh Nonconformists instead of Montagues and Capulets. Uniquely filmed in Welsh, Yiddish and English with the benefit of English ub-titles for those that can't understand one or other of the first two languages.

Solomon is a door-to-door salesman for his father's drapery business in the course of which he calls at Gaenor's house. Of course the two are attracted to one another and Solomon returns to puruse the relationship. He conceals his Jewish identity from Gaenor and pretends to be English, they meet secretly to make love, Gaenor gets pregnant, denounced in chapel for fornication, discovers Solomon is Jewish, rejects him, takes him back again, they they decide to run away together, but their respective families intervene to keep them apart etc etc

This of course isn't exactly an original dramatic premise, it's the standard off the shelf love story as seen before countless times all the way back to Romeo and Juliet and beyond. Two things save the film from being perhaps another cliche ridden romp.

Firstly is its realistic portrait of south Wales during a time of industrial unrest and anti-Semitic riots and how it details both the Welsh and Jewish experiences in the Wales of the early twentieth century and now both communities react in similar ways to economic adversity. (Paul Morrisson is a documentary film maker by trade, and this is his first feature film, so perhaps this is not surprising.)

Secondly the accomplished acting of the featured cast in particular that of Ioan Gruffudd who seems to be cast from the same mould as Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins.

It is of course, a tale of anti-Semitism, and the conflict of differing religous values, but the film never allows this to overwhelm the story. It is more the case that the film portrays the differing moral and religious backgrounds as both defining and imprisoning the two central characters. This is either a more realistic portrayal of life as it is or a failure to fully develop the characters depending on your point of view.

A film good enough to win the Welsh film industry (such as it is) its second Oscar nomination in the best foreign language film category. It didn't win (again) but perhaps it will be a case of third time lucky.

Historical footnote

The Wales of 1911 featured a long hot summer (a temperature of 124F was recorded in Cardiff), the seamen went on strike, the railwaymen went on strike, the army was sent into Llanelli, two people were shot dead and a serious riot ensued. In Tredegar Jewish shops were attacked, and the attacks spread throughout the Welsh valleys. The word pogrom was mentioned.

Welsh Nonconformity was not free of prejudice against Jews. The Jewish population in the towns of the coalfield declined after the attacks, and within a generation it was only at Cardiff that there was a substantial community of Welsh Jews.
John Davies Hanes Cymry/A History of Wales (Allen Lane, 1990/1993)

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