Sunshine Movie Review

"Sunshine" is a complex, cross-generational saga about the social, romantic and soul-searching struggles of a proud Jewish family in early 20th Century Hungary. It's a three-hour epic that spans several decades, and while that's a long time to sit still for what is essentially dramatized genealogy, the movie's only unequivocal fault is that it is -- believe it or not -- far too short.

A labor of love from director Istvan Szabo ("Mephisto") -- who co-wrote the film with playwright Israel Horovitz and based it, in part, on episodes in his family history -- this is an intense and personal film with beauty and scope to spare. But with nearly a century of territory to cover and more than a dozen primary characters to enfold, even at 180 minutes, it feels rushed -- like the cinematic equivalent of Cliffs Notes for a great novel.

To give the audience something constant to hang on to throughout the picture, Szabo cast Ralph Fiennes to play three generations of men in the Sonnenschein family, a clan whose fortune comes from an heirloom recipe for tasty, healing herbal tonic known as A Taste of Sunshine -- turned into a popular drink in the late 19th Century by the Sonnenschein patriarch.

After a hurried voice-over that takes us from the 1830s to the turn of the Century, Fiennes appears in his first role as Ignatz Sonnenschein, an austere young judge whose lifelong strife begins when he and his beautiful cousin Valerie (Jennifer Ehle) -- who had been raised as his sister -- fall in love and marry against family wishes.

His bureaucratic ambition and desire to be part of gentile society lead him to abandon his roots (changing his name to Ignatz Sors) and neglect his adoring wife, who bears him children, but leaves him for his brother Gustave (James Frain) before returning when Ignatz's health deteriorates.

Ignatz's political conservatism and naively blind loyalty to the crown also land him in the hot seat when the communists overthrow the monarchy. Only his relationship with the passionately socialist Gustave -- a highly respected doctor in the new regime -- saves him from anything worse than house arrest at the family manor.

But here's an example of the kind of information we miss out on because of the expurgated approach to the story: Valerie's affair and her desire to leave Ignatz surprise the audience as much as they surprise her husband. We haven't witnessed enough of their marital relationship to see that she's grown unhappy.

Ditto for generation two, in which Fiennes plays Ignatz and Valerie's son Adam, a confident champion fencer who converts to Christianity as a formality to be considered for Hungary's Olympic team (the sacrifice of religion and family heritage are ongoing themes).

Adam also has an affair, with his sister-in-law Greta (Rachel Weisz) who throws herself at him without even the slightest foreshadowing of her desire.

Szabo seems to feel obligated to cover large historical motifs to the detriment of character development. What's more, he'll pick the oddest moments on which to burn valuable screen time. Declarations of love and heated infidelities come out of nowhere, but the singing of the entire Hungarian national anthem goes on forever in one scene.

With the personalities left in the hands of actors like Fiennes, Ehle and Rosemary Harris (Ehle's mother, who plays Valerie in her old age through the rest of the movie), there is, by default, an implied depth to nearly all the Sonnenscheins. But still, "Sunshine" needed to portray them more intimately for the film to have its desired effect.

The picture does downshift, with powerful results, for the events leading to and following the Holocaust, including watching Adam, a national Olympic hero, stripped of his social standing and tortured by Nazis in front of his teenage son, Ivan.

As much as I loathe television miniseries as a rule, a six-part "Masterpiece Theatre"-style presentation (two episodes per genreation) would have given this vast story the room it needed to breathe. The intricate characters could have been better explored, the audience could certainly use the breaks, and the picture already has several ready-made fade-to-black moments, ideal for keeping viewers ravenous for more -- like when Ivan (now played by Fiennes as a broken, angry young concentration camp survivor) returns to the family home at the end of World War II and stuns his grandmother Valerie, who thought she was the only Sonnenschein to make it through the war.

It's an emotionally resounding moment that would virtually guarantee viewers returning for the next installment -- in which Ivan becomes a vengeful interrogator, investigating war crimes for the utterly corrupt Communist government installed by Russian overseers.

"Sunshine" is beautifully structured. The recipe for the Taste of Sunshine elixir, lost early on by Ignatz, serves as a recurring metaphor for a familial curse that haunts each Sonnenschein generation (think Rosebud from "Citizen Kane"). It's meticulously detailed, too. The decades of detailed costumes, for instance, are a splendid achievement.

The acting is engrossing, even if the characters aren't given the development they deserve. (Also, Fiennes doesn't do enough to distinguish between the personalities of his three Sonnenschein men, who all share similar traits of strength tempered with trepidation; allegiance and infidelity.)

This is a magnificent, sweeping and comprehensive historical drama. But the highlights of these peoples lives -- sex, death, imprisonment, betrayal -- just leave one wishing there was more.

Comments

Sunshine Rating

" Weak "

Rating: R, Opened: Friday, June 23, 2000 (in SF)

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