Sunshine (1999)

ISTVAN SZABO

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB

//////USA, 1999. , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Story by István Szabó, Screenplay by István Szabó, . Cinematography by . Produced by , . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by , .

The sweeping changes of history are too much for any person to resist being affected by, and this theme is explored by director Istvan Szabo through the experiences of one family in the first half of the twentieth century.

The Sonnenscheins are prominent members of the Budapest Jewish community thanks to great-grandfather Emmanuel having left his village and come to the city with the recipe of a healing tonic which he manufactured with great success, and quickly turned into a business empire. His son Ignatz () is educated as a lawyer and falls in love with his cousin and adopted sister Valerie (), though their affection for each other weakens when she finds that his loyalties to the emperor don’t mix well with her stronger desire to see justice for all Hungarians. Ignatz is convinced to change the family name to Sors in order to help his legal career, and serves with distinction in World War I, but with the rise of Socialism after armistice he is made an enemy of the state and his being forced into retirement works against his health.

His son Adam, also played by Fiennes (in a devilishly natty Douglas Fairbanks moustache that is the best of his looks in this film) also studies law but becomes a national hero thanks to his success as a swordsman, eventually bringing his country glory by winning a gold medal in fencing at the 1936 Olympics. Adam is married to and having an affair with his sister-in-law (), and he too has made compromises to get ahead, converting to Roman Catholicism for the sake of his career before the Nazis occupy Hungary and he is carried away by that nightmare.

His son Ivan (Fiennes again, of course) rises in the ranks of the post-war communist party in an effort to retaliate against the horrors of fascism but finds himself manipulated by a Soviet-controlled government, until the Hungarian revolution of 1956 offers him a way out. As with all efforts to really make a difference in the inevitable tides that politics will take, his efforts are futile.

An international cast of actors, multiple filming locations and production and costume designs that cover decades of history are held together firmly under Istvan Szabo’s clear-eyed and unshakeable direction, resulting in a film that stays on track and never gets messy or overindulgent. It is long, however, and the three hours do not fly by, for while it is intelligent in its exploration of mortal frailties, it lacks enough passion to keep you breathlessly hanging off its every next moment, the politics are too academic and related through stilted dialogue, and the romance has no blood flowing in its veins.

Fiennes is appropriate casting in the lead, he can always manage to be both cerebrally complicated and lusciously sexual at the same time, and does a good enough job of creating three separate characters that don’t get confusing for him or us, but he’s somewhat swamped by the number of incidents and affairs he needs to get in under the wire in this marathon of a script.

Best of the entire cast is as the older Valerie (and, in real life, Ehle’s mother), who witnesses so much change but even more loss and seeks to find the wisdom she can attain from what she has endured. It’s not nearly as affecting an experience as it should be, given what it contains, but there as aspects of it that linger in the mind and heart afterwards, from scenes of incalculable horror (Adam at Auschwitz) to moments of grace as Harris brings the epic to a close.

Golden Globe Award Nominations: Best Picture-Drama; Best Director (Istvan Szabo); Best Original Score

European Film Awards: Best European Actor (Ralph Fiennes); Best European Screenwriter; Best European Cinematographer
Nomination: Best European Film

Toronto International Film Festival: 1999

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