But though the film plays like a bad-trip romance, one suspects that Morrison had somewhat more lofty intentions. Set in a Welsh valley community in 1911, it draws a parallel between the lives of young Gaenor (Nia Roberts), the dutiful daughter of a Protestant mining family, and Solomon (Ioan Gruffudd), the son of Orthodox Jews, whose only interaction with the local miners is of a mercantile nature. Solomon’s parents run a pawnshop and he himself goes from door to door as a packman, a peddler who sells swatches of fabric for dressmaking. Solomon and Gaenor live in opposing but similar tribes, both families having unshakable rules and codes of behavior and a sense of identity hardened by years of material uncertainty. Traditions are clung to because they provide stability and continuity in a world of misfortune and disruption.
It’s while doing his packman job that Solomon meets Gaenor, and after some initial flirtations the romance begins. Knowing that he would never be accepted by her family — and possibly her as well — if they realized he was Jewish, he passes himself as an Englishman named Sam Livingstone. For the first third of the film, much suspense is generated by the tenuousness of the Sam-Solomon charade, especially when he’s under the baleful gaze of Gaenor’s older brother, Crad (Mark Lewis Jones), a surly hulk of resentment who looks as if he might spend his days ripping the coal out of the mines with his teeth.
But Solomon’s deception is drawn out to the point where suspense becomes weariness. Paralyzed by the warring emotions of shame and love, it takes forever for him to make a decisive move — and when he does, it’s far too late.
Solomon and Gaenor are characters trapped in an ignorant backwater in a benighted past and all we can do is sit and watch as the entrenched ethos of their time and place grinds their love into dust. Any insight the movie might have intended to offer about the plight of Jews in long-ago Wales and the intractable demands of identity is buried in the general dourness. It’s the kind of masochistic wallow that might appeal to young fatalists — people are cruel and that’s all there is to it.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].