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CULTURE CLASH

If she's a Shark and he's a Jet, or he's a Montague and she's a Capulet, it's pretty obvious right from the start that things are not going to go smoothly. Someone could end up dead, in fact.

Although we've seen this story before, this somber epic of star-crossed romance from writer-director Paul Morrison seems like something new thanks to its unique setting - a dreary mining town in Wales in 1911 - and its novel pairing of unlikely bedfellows - a handsome Jewish "pacman" (or peddler) and a chapel-going coal-miner's daughter.

Solomon (Ioan Gruffudd) is the son of an Orthodox Jew who owns a pawnshop just over the mountain - actually a large hill - from the dirty coal town where Gaenor (Nia Roberts) lives a bleak existence with her hatchet-faced family. (Among her duties are toweling off her surly older brother after his bath and helping school children memorize rhymes about the evils of drink.)

While selling cloth door-to-door, Solomon becomes enchanted with Gaenor, but tells her his name is Sam Livingstone, fearing she might rebuff him if she learns he is a Jew. Gaenor becomes pregnant and is expelled from her church fellowship. Meanwhile, a strike has turned the miners' mood even uglier than usual, and Solomon's family's pawnshop is trashed in an anti-Semitic outburst, the first in a downward spiral of events that brings the film to its inevitable conclusion.

The film starts out with promise. The bleak backdrop of the dirty town emphasizes the fresh-scrubbed appeal of the talented leads. Gruffudd (Fifth Officer Lowe, who rescued Kate Winslet from the drink on "Titanic," and Horatio Hornblower on the TV miniseries) is a younger, better-looking version of Aidan Quinn. Roberts, a Welsh actress, displays a refreshing naturalness in her first starring role in a feature film.

The clash of cultures in the initial romance is interesting. (Most interesting are the parallels between two opposing rule-bound faith communities: both are distrustful of outsiders and shun members who dare break with tradition.) This was an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, and the language barrier - the film shifts back and forth from English to Welsh to Yiddish, with subtitles where necessary - adds interest.

But because the film is structured around the doomed romance, Solomon's lack of candor with Gaenor makes the relationship less credible and the second half of the film less engaging than it otherwise might have been.

SOLOMON AND GAENOR ** 1/2

STARRING: Joan Gruffudd, Nia Roberts

DIRECTOR: Paul Morrison

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

RATING: R for sex, one scene of violence

THE LOWDOWN: An Orthodox Jew and a chapel-going coal miner's daughter fall in love in 1911 Wales. In English, Welsh and Yiddish with some subtitles.

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