Echoes of “Romeo and Juliet” hang heavy over documentarian Paul Morrison’s dramatic feature debut, a lovingly-realized but thin and ponderous tale of a romance between a Jewish boy and a gentile girl in 1911 Wales. The film carefully depicts a clash of cultures within the confines of a doomed love story, and it achieves an often exquisite recreation of a distant time and place; but it’s also extremely deliberate in its pacing, moving at the very opposite of a breakneck speed, and in the final analysis its gorgeous cinematography and attention to detail can’t conceal its soapoperatic overtones and its inclination to belabor the obvious.
The story concerns Solomon (Ioan Gruffudd), whose parents, Orthodox Jewish immigrants, run a pawnshop; they also sell cloth, and it’s while hawking samples door-to-door as a “pacman” that the young fellow meets shy but understatedly lovely Gaenor (Nia Roberts). She belongs to a coal-mining family of rigorous chapel-going Christians; and Solomon, realizing that his background might cause difficulty, conceals it while gradually gaining the girl’s affection. Before long, of course, complications ensue, including an unexpected pregnancy, “Scarlet Letter”-like church condemnation, anti-Semitic riots by striking miners, and prejudice on both sides of the family divide. The ending, predictably, has tragic overtones, as the hero suffers terribly for his love, actually trudging mile after mile over snowswept tundras to search for Gaenor. Will they be reunited, and if so for how long?
If this narrative had been played out at a feverish pitch, it would have become sheer melodrama, but Morrison instead opts for a relatively restrained, controlled approach, preferring small gestures more often than large ones and moving things forward gently. He also benefits from fine performances across the board. Gruffudd, who might be familiar as the star of the “Horatio Hornblower” movies on A&E, is both drop-dead handsome and a credibly imperfect suitor; Roberts is even better, bringing a quiet dignity and sense of insecurity to the reserved young woman. The supporting cast is strong too, with Maureen Lipman and David Horovitch memorable as Solomon’s parents and William Thomas convincingly stern as Gaenor’s father. Mark Lewis Jones overdoes things a bit as the girl’s angry brother, but that’s the nature of the role. The production design of Hayden Pearce is superb, as is the cinematography of Nina Kellgren; together they give the images marvelous texture, so that many scenes look almost like paintings. Ilona Sakacz complements them with a delicate chamber score that adds pathos and color without ever becoming overbearing.
“Solomon & Gaenor” is an evocative portrait of social and religious differences in a distant time and place, and even the relative predictability of its plot can’t entirely conceal its virtues. As was the case with 1997’s similarly elegant and tragic “Swept from the Sea,” however, its lovingly-detailed treatment of a tragic romance in impressive locales might not be enough to attract audiences who seem reluctant to embrace this kind of carefully-appointed, slowly-paced “Masterpiece Theatre” fare on the big screen.