Directed by István Szabó
Review by Matt Heffernan
If you're going to make a three-hour film, you better have a damn good reason. Some films, like Gone With the Wind and The Godfather, Part II, can go well beyond the 180-minute mark because their stories demand it. It's practically cruelty, otherwise. I'm sure that Hungarian director István Szabó had the best intentions, but he must have realized just how much he was asking of the audience.
The gargantuan film that is Sunshine is told through the narration of Ivan Sors (Ralph Fiennes), starting with his great-great-grandfather's village tavern. There, a tonic was created that was highly regarded in the community. While distilling another batch, the tavern exploded, leaving Ivan's 12-year-old great-grandfather with a tonic recipe and no father. This boy's name was Emmanuel Sonnenschein, and he moved to Budapest where he founded a company making "Taste of Sunshine" -- "sunshine" being the meaning of his surname. He grew up to be a wealthy man (played by David De Keyser), and had two sons: Ignatz (Ivan's father, also played by Fiennes) and Gustave (James Frain).
Ignatz eventually married Valerie (Elizabeth Ehle), his cousin who was raised as his sister, and he became a high-ranking Judge under the Austro-Hungarian emperor. The reigning power was anti-semitic, so Ignatz, Valerie, and Gustave all changed their name to the more Hungarian Sors. After World War I, the empire fell to a communist revolution, and then to fascists. Now at the one hour mark, Ignatz dies froma heart condition, but we soon cut to his son, Adam (Ivan's father, now played by Fiennes), who tries to fit into the fascist regime as a fencing champion. He even converts to Catholicism to get into the national team, but when the Nazis come to town, he is still Jewish by blood, and that is enough to die in Auschwitz.
Now it's two hours in, and Ivan returns to Budapest, after seeing his father die, as a man (and finally played by Fiennes on screen). Communism is back, but despite their saving of the Jews, Stalin's regime isn't much better to them. Ivan is in the police, and is ordered to investiage a zionist conspiracy, which may be led by his former commander (William Hurt).
Whew! That's a lot of information -- much more than I usually give about a film. It was necessary, however, to illustrate my criticism of this film. Each of the three generations that Fiennes plays get into the same situation. Like many other Hungarians throughout the last century, the Sonnenschein/Sors men tried to be good citizens in the face of anti-semitism. Each hour of the film essentially told the same story, and that kind of repetition at the expense of brevity is unforgivable.
Perhaps presented as a mini-series, Sunshine would have been more succesful. Of course, this would have to be on pay-cable, because its R rating is well-deserved. I thought that Fiennes and the rest of the cast did a terrific job, and many scenes were very well done. There were some good themes presented, but seeing them all come around yet again in the third hour was too much.
It's really a shame, because making this film must have been a very emotional experience for Szabó. He co-wrote the screenplay with playwrite Israel Horovitz, and even the Sonnenschein house in Budapest was his actual childhood home. Unfortunately, the film becomes nothing more than a review of 20th century Hungarian history.
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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan