The majority of U.K. releases that enjoy art-house runs on these shores fall into one of two categories: the heartburning comedy hawking daft Britquirks or the stiff-limbed costume downer plowing cursed love and bleakly gorgeous soggy vistas. Solomon & Gaenor falls into the latter column; despite an acute eye for detail in rendering a coal-mining Welsh town in 1911, Paul Morrison’s relentlessly unsurprising staging of a Romeo-and-Juliet story fetishizes its accelerating tragedies with morbid solemnity.
Solomon (Ioan Gruffudd) is a thoughtful, kindhearted packman out of the early chapters of a Thomas Hardy novel (Morrison’s plottings and deployment of landscape nod to The Return of the Native and Jude the Obscure). The boy is also an Orthodox Jew, which he conceals from chapel-going Gaenor (Nia Roberts) when he comes to her door selling his wares. He woos the bashful, fidgety girl by making a dress for her; this endearing bit of courtship strategy is sweet and unforced, but only impels candlelit pans of forbidden hayloft missionary-position sex. Disastrous disclosures and betrayals begin accumulating long before Solomon’s real identity comes to light, but the multiple conflicts of class and culture (the miners are on strike, and economic strain only worsens already existing religious tensions) are hastily sketched and the dialogue drags with awkward exposition. Solomon & Gaenor does work up a lather during its deliriously pitched last reel: a bloody interlude worthy of Fight Club, a body-horrific sex/birth/death smashup aching for a Bruno Dumont remake, and a coda purloined from Au Hasard Balthazar. Indeed, the only dramatic suspense of Solomon & Gaenor lies in wondering which of the pair will end up as the sacrificial donkey on love’s stone-cold altar.
Though it lacks any sense of place (best guess is L.A.), the nasty, lonely world of Love & Sex exudes as much gloom and doom as Solomon & Gaenor‘s Wales, owing to whiny thirtysomethings who never have any friends except for their current significant others and who start a majority of sentences with “I’m a . . . “: Famke Janssen’s high-strung women’s-mag writer says, “I’m a floater; I float through life,” Jon Favreau’s guy’s-guy painter says, “I’m a guy—I fuck, I don’t fall in love,” and so on. Built upon a shaky framing device that proves incoherent, Love & Sex is all solipsistic jaded-Cosmo patter, in which the principals—self-obsessed but not self-aware—are angry that their lives are not perfect, and said principals’ anger is promptly assuaged.