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Oscars 2000 Friday, 17 March, 2000, 10:15 GMT
Wising up to Solomon
Ioan Gruffudd and Nia Roberts
Gruffudd and Roberts play lovers facing conflict from all sides
By BBC News Online's Rebecca Thomas

As American Beauty grabs the Oscars spotlight, a little-known art house film is still enjoying a quiet success of its own.

Tucked away, in the list of Academy Award nominees for best foreign language film is the low-budget Solomon and Gaenor.

The debut cinema venture from former TV director Paul Morrison cost a mere 1.7m but took five years to complete, and it's the first film made entirely in Welsh and Yiddish.

Right from the beginning I intended it as a love story. I was fascinated by the idea of how love could be born 'across the divide'

Paul Morrison, Director
Even before his landmark movie gained the Academy's recognition, Morrison saw it pick up awards at three European film festivals.

But the director was jettisoned onto cloud nine when the Academy ranked his work alongside the likes of acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar.

"It was the icing on the cake. I hit the ceiling when I heard - and I haven't come down yet," he laughs.

Opposing communities

Set in Wales in 1911, Solomon and Gaenor is a tragic tale of illicit love between two star-crossed young lovers.
Nia Roberts
Gaenor (Roberts): Braves her family's wrath
Played out against a backdrop of racial tension and industrial unrest, it stars Hornblower heart-throb Ioan Gruffudd, comedy actress Maureen Lipman and rising Welsh actress Nia Roberts.

Gruffudd plays the Jewish peddler Solomon who begins a passionate affair with Roberts' character Gaenor, a Welsh girl from a family of strict chapel-goers.

The odds are against the couple, however, as their very separate and antagonistic communities are outraged by their union and conspire to keep them permanently apart.

The lovers speak Welsh when together. Otherwise, they use the language of their respective communities. An English version of the movie was also made but Yiddish and Welsh and are still heard throughout.
Foreign language film nominees
Solomon and Gaenor (Welsh/Yiddish) - Dir Paul Morrison
All About My Mother (Spanish) - Dir Pedro Almodovar
Caravan (Nepalese) - Dir Eric Valli
East-West (French) - Dir Regis Wargnier
Under the Sun (Swedish) - Colin Nutley
Despite the film's eclectic cultural mix, its independent producer Sheryl Crown is confident of its universal relevance.

"The fact that it has already won three international awards shows it has wide appeal - it is a classic love story against the odds," she explains.

Conviction in the movie's potential is what first prompted Crown to accept the challenge to be its producer, and then help with the lengthy process of securing backing from S4C, FilmFour and the National Lottery.

Celebrity challenge

Morrison had the idea for Solomon and Gaenor while researching a documentary series for Channel Four about the British Jewish experience.

He stumbled on an exhibition dealing with the violent history between the Welsh mining community and the Jews from Eastern Europe - in particular the anti-Semitic riots of Tredegar in 1911.
Paul Morrison
Morrison wanted the movie to have universal appeal
The story struck an instant chord with Morrison, who is himself Jewish and openly "obsessed with issues of Jewish identity".

The success of his "baby" is therefore a personal triumph for the director, but he always wanted it to touch upon general human experience.

"Right from the beginning I intended it as a love story. I was fascinated by the idea of how love could be born 'across the divide'," he explains.

And he acknowledges that the sincere portrayal of his sensitive story owes much to the sense of real passion between Roberts and Gruffudd.

Sexual chemistry

"When I saw them together, I knew they were right - and they couldn't keep their hands off each other," Morrison enthuses.
Ioan Gruffudd as Hornblower
Gruffudd rose to fame as Captain Horatio Hornblower
Securing Gruffudd for what must, at the time, have seemed an obscure part was another of the film's triumphs. Since his success as the swarthy Horatio Hornblower, Gruffudd has been increasingly in demand. But the actor says he was captivated by Solomon and Gaenor from the start.

"As soon as I saw the script I fell in love with it. It's a lovely story and the theme of cultural identity is something as a Welshman I feel very strongly about.

"I thought it was great opportunity to play a romantic lead and that it would be a challenge to play a Jewish character.

"But it was the hardest role I've played because I had to immerse myself in a different time and religion - and I had to learn Yiddish."

Lipman, as Solomon's mother, overcame challenges of her own. Despite being Jewish, she too had to learn Yiddish. On top of that, she had to play totally against type as a harsh, unsympathetic character.

"People won't recognise her as the Maureen Lipman they know and love," says Morrison, adding that there was a point when "she almost threw in the towel".
Maureen Lipman
Lipman acts against type as Solomon's harsh mother
Solomon and Gaenor enjoyed good reviews when it was first released in British cinemas last year.

And it is currently playing to packed houses in Wales.

All that remains is to see how it fares across the US when it goes on general release in the autumn.

S4C chief executive Huw Jones is confident that the movie his company helped to sponsor will face few hurdles across the Atlantic.

"It is a story that people in the US can relate to. Some European films are too subtle and what the Americans like is a straightforward story."

See also:

13 Sep 99 | Wales
19 Nov 99 | Entertainment
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