HUNGARIAN DIRECTOR'S EPIC Send This Review to a Friend
Istvan Szabo, who has given us such impressive films as "The Father," "Mephisto" and "Colonel Redl," has directed a stunning new drama that explores the last century just as we are nearing the next. SUNSHINE, written in collaboration with the internationally known American playwright Israel Horovitz, was one of the most outstanding and significant films showcased at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival. This is a real movie, one that's not only sumptuously filmed and movingly acted, but a film that deals with important historical issues relevant to Hungary and the world.
"Sunshine" tells the story of three generations of a family, with Ralph Fiennes doing yeoman work playing three of the successive men around whom the epic revolves. It is a smashing tour de force for the noted actor, and he is more than up to the challenge. The film, which begins during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, proceeds through World War I, the Horthy regime, World War II, the Soviet regime, the 1956 anti-Communist uprising and the democratic present. The background reveals the turbulent sweep of history.
At the core is the Sonnenschein family, Hungarian Jews, at first economically successful thanks to a "Sunshine Tonic" made with a secret recipe. Although the distillery explodes, the tonic is a key to the future success of Emmanuel, the surviving child who builds the business in Budapest. We first see Fiennes as Emmanuel's son Ignatz, who defies convention to marry his first cousin and professionally studies law and becomes an influential judge who must overcome anti-Semitic roadblocks.
Anti-Semitism also is in the way of his son Adam, who becomes the country's most renowned Olympic fencer, but is subsequently caught up in the Holocaust. Fiennes also plays Adam's son Ivan, who survives the Holocaust with a bitter memory and is subsequently caught in a bind when ordered to persecute alleged subversives whom he knows are not guilty but are being hounded in a period of repression. Fiennes manages to keep a thread of family similarity running through his characterizations, yet make each family member different with respect to his own personality. It's quite a feat.
The issues grappled with in the film involve the efforts to hide one's identity in order to get ahead, the futility of denying one's heritage, the toll taken on human beings trying to accommodate themselves to oppressors and the crises of conscience that engulf persons who must decide whether to remain silent or act at great personal risk.
Szabo has assembled a cast that also contributes generously to the overall quality, including Rosemary Harris, Rachel Weisz, Jennifer Ehle, Molly Parker, Deborah Kara Unger, James Frain and John Neville. William Hurt has a particularly strong turn as an interrogator on whom the tables are turned.
Those familiar with Szabo's past films will hardly be surprised to find that "Sunshine" makes masterly use of sets and décor and is exquisitely filmed by one of the great directors of photography, Lajos Koltai. Veteran composer Maurice Jarre provides an appropriate score.
There are some cliches in the story and a little less symbolism would be in order. Perhaps the film could have been tightened in a few places. But on balance this is a huge achievement on a scale and with an intelligence all too rare in films these days.