Solomon & Gaenor (1999) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Two thumbs up - and we were surprised to like it!

Scoop's comments in white:


Solomon is a young Jewish man who peddles fabric door-to-door in a bleak, misty, eternally rainy Welsh industrial town in 1911. Right away you have to wonder about the intelligence of his parents. OK, we know they are the victims of one of the ongoing anti-semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe and they had to leave Russia. That much I understand. Now let's see if we can imagine their conversations - being good tailors and good businessmen, they must have a strategy for where they will go. You don't just run from Russia, you have to go to somewhere.

Well, let's see, where should we go? The USA or Europe, where people have money to spend, and tailors are always in demand? Hong Kong? Singapore? Brazil? Canada? London? Nope, lets move to Wales, where they have no economy to speak of, a completely obscure language which we don't speak, and a closed Christian mining community that doesn't understand outsiders with different ways. Oh, yeah, and let's start our business in a really poor town in Wales, where the locals will not only mistrust us, but even if they come to trust us in time, they will still have no money to spend on tailoring.

Wales? What in God's name prompted them to move to Wales? It's not like the Welsh Tourism Commission was putting out a lot of feelers to the Jewish community, or to anyone else for that matter, were they?

Well, anyway, there they are, and Solomon is smitten by a beautiful, sincere, simple, churchgoing lass he meets in his daily rounds. He lies to her about his background, he courts her, wins her, gets her pregnant, and .....

.... well, you just know things are going to turn very sour. If you hadn't figured it out, you could just listen for the trag-o-matic music, then look at the grey skies, and you'd get the idea.

The film has been compared to Romeo and Juliet because S&G are doomed lovers, but that is really not a fair comparison. There is no tragedy artificially imposed on them by external circumstances. They are two people who get the exact consequences that they should have expected from the actions they took. And the actions they took were the impetuous and foolish things that young people will do to be together when they are in love and lust.

Solomon knows from the outset that his family will never accept a working class Christian woman, but he pursues her anyway. He knows that she won't date him if she knows he's Jewish, so he lies about his upbringing. They both know that having sex every fifteen minutes will eventually result in pregnancy, but they do it anyway. A good Christian girl in 1911 knows she shouldn't be dropping her skirts for a boy she's only known for a couple days, but she does it anyway. (What were the odds of that in 1911? He must have found the only easy non-prostitute in all of Christendom. Talk about "getting lucky"!)

So this story is not really about the context of their intolerant families, ala Romeo and Juliet. In this version of the star-crossed love affair, the family context is only the backdrop for a story about young people who pursue young love irrespective of the consequences. It's important to realize that the shelter of love was far more important for them than it would be for us in today's suburbia. In addition to romantic love, we also have other moments in life to treasure. In contrast, these are people with miserable, boring lives in a miserable dirty, rainy town. Their love provides the only oasis of contentment in what seems like a bleak and infinite desert. They want the affair, they know the consequences of having it, and they pay the price to have it anyway.

There's a lot of bleak reality on display here, and I found it completely believable. I didn't sense any bullshit as the story unfolded, and I didn't have to stretch my credulity to accept any of the details. Those are really the kinds of things that real people do at that age. The fistfight between Solomon and Gaenor's brother was one of the most realistic fight scenes I've ever seen, and they look like real guys fighting, not like movie cowboys following moves dictated by a choreographer. One can feel every jarring blow, and can feel Solomon's frustration because he has the courage for the fight, but not the size or ability to trade blows with a burly worker. The sex scenes are realistic as well. None of that smooth, romantic, slow, under-the-sheets stuff. Just normal folks getting it on, not really clicking at first, but gradually developing a trust for each other, then establishing a rhythm, and then really liking and getting into sex together.

Eventually, pregnant Gaenor is sent away by her parents, and Solomon is shipped off to a prosperous uncle, but their need to be together overcomes the circumstances. In the end, despairing, Solomon finally tracks down his sequestered lover by following her on foot through the wintry countryside. He makes it there, but the effects of the harsh cold, sleeping in the snow, and getting beaten up by tough Welshmen has taken its toll on his body, and he dies.

Sorry, no Hollywood ending for this couple.

Tuna's comments in yellow:

Solomon & Gaenor is a tale set in pre WW I Welsh coal mining valleys about tensions between staunch Protestant Welsh miners and Orthodox Jewish merchants who immigrated from Russia. Based on historical fact, writer/director Paul Morrisson was inspired by riots that broke out among striking Welsh miners, who ended up looting Jewish businesses. The Jews had money, and were an easy target for the miner's frustration with strikes, poor working conditions, etc. This was Morrisson's first feature film -- his background was in documentaries. He chose an cross-cultural tragic love story as a means to explore the cultural differences.

Solomon is a young Jewish son of a store owner, who is not convinced that Judaism is the answer to everything. When his family turns him from accountant to packman (door-to-door salesman), he meets Gaenor, daughter of a Welsh mining family. Solomon falls instantly, as does Gaenor. Solomon hides the fact that he is Jewish from her, and they begin a passionate affair. Her pregnancy, and the public condemnation from her church, make the relationship nearly impossible. Solomon's secret is revealed, and both families do everything in their power to keep the two apart. Ioan Gruffudd as Solomon is brilliant, and he has real chemistry with the less experienced Nia Roberts, who plays Gaenor. It was important to Morrison to recreate accurate 1911 era Welsh mining towns, and also to have the Jews speaking Yiddish and the Welsh speaking Welsh. He had the lovers using English with each other in the English/International version, but also made a Welsh version where the two used Welsh. This required finding a young actress who could speak Welsh, and had the right chemistry with Gruffudd.

Morrisson's documentary experience is evident, as he uses a rich color palate, dramatic photography, and spectacular scenery. I enjoyed this film very much. The chemistry between the young lovers was palpable, the production values were superb, and the film dealt with the clash of cultures with great fairness and sensitivity. The pace was leisurely, but, with the photography, that didn't detract from my enjoyment. I put it at 3.5 stars of 4, with a caution that it is for genre fans only.

Scoop's summary:

I refused an invitation to see this in the theaters, then I avoided watching it on DVD. I thought to myself, "Get real. A film in Welsh and Yiddish about a mining town at the turn of the century? Later to that crap."

I was totally wrong. Ultimately I ended up liking it. It's not a "feel good" picture, it's not an easy watch, it's not light entertainment, and really isn't a mass audience picture at all, but if the description sounds interesting to you, and you have plenty of hankies to make it through the ending, the film has a lot of plusses.

  • It's not really arty or hard to follow. The narrative is straightforward and simple.
  • The technical side of the filmmaking is excellent. The recreation of the town in that era is stunning. Damned if I know whether it's accurate, but it surely creates the atmosphere they intended, with the murky mists, the omnipresent mud, the grinding gears, the impoverished row houses, the grim factory environment. The cinematography is excellent, so realistic that you'll feel cold and damp when you watch it.
  • If you or your significant other likes a good cry, see it together, because the ending to this one should get the tear ducts open. A very good film, very diligently crafted, but for a highly targeted audience. Women 18-29 score it a classic-level 7.4, but men that age score it a dismal 4.8. On the other hand, older men liked it. So if you're an older guy with a younger date, and you both like some atypical films, here's your perfect choice.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.66:1

  • Director's commentary


Nia Roberts took off her top several times for several sex scenes. These two lovers were really hot for each other, and the sex is realistic, but the camera angles are not explicit.

Ioan Gruffudd shows his bum.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: No consensus. Roger Ebert hated it, but Apollo nominated it for sainthood. Ebert 2/4, Apollo 85.

  • This film was nominated for an Oscar for best picture in the foreign language category.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it a solid 6.8, and Apollo users a very impressive 84/100. Obviously, the film's description will steer away those who hate this kind of film, so they'll never get to vote. Those who saw it, people who like more artistic and honest cinema, were generally impressed.
  • With their dollars ... arthouse circuit, 22 screens. What do you expect from a sensitive, tragic film in Welsh and Yiddish?
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Scoop calls it a B-, Tuna a C+. Scoop says, "I thought to myself, 'Get real. A film in Welsh and Yiddish about a mining town at the turn of the century? Later to that crap.' I refused an invitation to see it in the theaters, then I avoided watching it on DVD, but I was totally wrong.  It's a bit too serious and self-important, but still a good flick. Ultimately I ended up liking it a lot."

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