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(2000) (Ralph Fiennes, Rosemary Harris) (R)

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Drama: Three generations of Hungarian men contend with anti-Semitism, politics and political upheaval, and the women in their lives over a span of nearly a century.
It's the late 19th century and Emmanuelle Sonnenschein (DAVID DE KEYSER) is a Hungarian Jew who's built a family fortune from a passed-down recipe for an elixir known as "A Taste of Sunshine." With the help of his wife, Rose (MIRIAM MARGOLYES), he's also raised his two sons, Ignatz (RALPH FIENNES) and Gustave (JAMES FRAIN), and their cousin, Valerie (JENNIFER EHLE), to be fine young people. Thus, Emmanuelle's pride is hurt when neither of his sons wishes to continue the family business.

Things become even more contentious when Gustave, a doctor in training, announces that he knows of the love between Ignatz, an aspiring lawyer, and Valerie, a budding photographer, despite them being related. The two eventually marry and have children, the three young adults change their last name to Sors in the belief that it will help their aspirations, and WWI eventually breaks out, all creating more tension in the family.

With time and various characters passing on, Ignatz and Valerie's sons, Adam (RALPH FIENNES) and Istvan (MARK STRONG), are young men with Adam soon becoming a star fencing champion for Hungary during the 1930s. Faced with the same anti-Semitism his father faced, Adam decides to convert to Christianity so as to join a prestigious officer's club and further his fencing career. During his conversion, he meets Hannah Wippler (MOLLY PARKER), a woman who's not only similarly recently converted, but also engaged to another man.

Despite her pending marriage, Adam eventually wins her over and they marry and have children, just like Istvan and his new wife, Greta (RACHEL WEISZ). Things seem great for the families as Adam heads off for the Berlin Olympics, but a later affair and the outbreak of WWII changes everything, especially since the families - no matter their efforts - can't escape their Jewish pasts.

After the war and its devastation on the country and its people, Valerie (ROSEMARY HARRIS), now an old woman, returns home as does Adam's son, Ivan (RALPH FIENNES). Having seen the atrocities committed during the war, Adam soon joins Andor Knorr (WILLIAM HURT), a communist official heading a witch-hunt of sorts looking for Hungarians who assisted the Nazis during the War.

Beginning a covert affair with Carole Kovacs (DEBORAH KARA UNGER), a policewoman married to a powerful political hero, Ivan soon finds his world being turned upside down as political upheaval, family secrets and changes of fortune alter his life and make him reflect on the history of his family in Hungary.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
When it comes to acting, the more range one has the better, both for the performer and the audiences watching them. Not only does that allow for career longevity (to prevent the audience from getting "burned out" by the same type of character - thus the reason few performers stick with the James Bond character), but it also paves the way for more and varied roles, as well as the potential for possible accolades and award potential.

Of course, if one's skills are limited, the point is moot, and there are plenty of performers who are in that boat but have nonetheless made names for themselves - not to mention a "decent" living - playing the same sort of characters. While performers as varied as Eddie Murphy and Arnold Schwarzenegger have occasionally tried pushing their range, they usually end up returning to what they do best. Meanwhile, actors such as Adam Sandler have yet to even attempt that, but have still managed to be wildly successful.

While actor Ralph Fiennes clearly has more range and acting prowess than many of his associates, he's running the risk of being pigeonholed as playing the suffering protagonist of period romantic dramas who usually ends up participating in some sort of sordid love affair. With such starring roles in films like "The English Patient," "The End of the Affair" and now "Sunshine," the twice-Oscar nominated actor has become the epitome and perhaps the de facto standard of such a character.

To be fair, he plays the part so well that it's of no surprise that he's tapped for and/or chooses such roles. Fans of his work will thus be pleased with the fact that they'll get to see plenty of him - in more ways than one - in Academy Award winner director Istvan Szabo's latest effort. That's not only due to him baring all of his body, but also because he plays three generations of Hungarian men - grandfather, father and grandson - in this film that uses the history and volatile political landscape of late 19th and 20th century Hungary as its backdrop.

Spanning a large number of years - as well as minutes - over its three hour or so runtime, the picture is exceedingly well-staged, crafted and performed. It's also overlong and occasionally frustratingly episodic, but this mini-epic nonetheless manages to overcome its deficiencies and ends up being a powerful film.

As narrated by the final character Fiennes embodies - the grandson and last in line of several generations of Hungarian Jews - the film does zip through time, events and exposition during its opening moments as it sets up the story and its characters. While that's obviously a necessary "evil" or byproduct of trying to present a great deal of info to the audience to get them up to speed as quickly as possible, it does give the film a disjointed feel.

It also prevents the viewer - at least until things finally begin to settle down into a steady rhythm - from completely being swept away by and/or wrapped up into the proceedings. I'll admit to cringing upon first hearing Ralph Fiennes' voiceover narration guiding us through the story, since the technique is usually obnoxious and a cheap and easy way of imparting exposition and other "play by play" details.

Yet, the way in which director Szabo ("Mephisto," "Meeting Venus") and playwright/screenwriter Israel Horovitz ("Author! Author!" "The Indian Wants the Bronx") utilize it - in a novel-like fashion that's mostly congruous with the proceedings - and the fact that they don't overuse it after the initial information dump, makes it tolerable and even acceptable at times.

The filmmakers also unintentionally elicit thoughts of "Forrest Gump" in that various protagonists are involved in a range of true-life historical events over a span of many years. Of course, the various Sonnenschein men don't directly influence well-known historical events, as did Gump, and the story takes place in a land whose history is most likely foreign - no pun intended - to most viewers.

Nonetheless, the historical backdrop immediately gives the proceedings a sense of true depth, and with that as its underlying spine, the film runs several interesting themes through its three stories. One obviously involves the promise and hope that new political regimes and ideologies offer to the masses, which unfortunately usually don't come true as they end up being just as bad as what preceded them.

The more interesting and prevalent theme, however, is that of anti-Semitism, its effects on the various generations of the film's central family, and their misguided and ultimately failed efforts to escape their past and heritage. While such material - in that locale and particularly during the time of WWII - certainly isn't novel, the manner in which Szabo tells the story makes it feel fresh and disturbing.

The filmmaker's more interesting directorial touch, however, is in having Ralph Fiennes play all three generations of the family's men. While Fiennes is certainly capable of pulling off such a feat - and does so admirably - the effect is a bit jarring at first.

As such, one constantly wonders when someone's going to tell one of the two subsequent characters, "You bear a striking resemblance to your father/grandfather." While that would have been a cute, if obvious joke, I suppose it would have been too much, drawing more attention to the matter and thus further distracting the viewer from the proceedings.

Regardless of any such distractions or logic behind the casting decision, Fiennes delivers an Oscar-caliber performance, not only for the sheer amount of work or screen time, but also for creating three distinct characters (and not using extreme makeup or other physical accouterments to do so). Although those characters aren't always sympathetic and certainly aren't always likeable or entertaining, one can't deny the skill and workhorse like effort behind the collective roles.

The rest of the performances are solid across the board, with the best being delivered by Jennifer Ehle ("Wilde," "Paradise Road") and Rosemary Harris ("My Life So Far," "Tom and Viv") who play the same character (Valerie) but at different ages and stages of her life. Both are fabulous in the role and deliver standout performances, a point strengthened by the fact that Harris is Ehle's real-life mother.

Supporting performances from the likes of Rachel Weisz ("The Mummy," "Swept From the Sea"), Deborah Kara Unger ("The Hurricane," "Payback"), James Frain ("Hilary and Jackie," "Elizabeth") and particularly William Hurt ("Broadcast News," "The Big Chill") are terrific and perfectly complement Fiennes' work in his various roles.

Not to be outdone by their thespian counterparts, and as is the case with many period dramas, the combined efforts of the technical crew are also first-rate. From the fabulous production design to the great period costumes and from the lush cinematography of Lajos Koltai ("Mother," "Home For the Holidays") to the great score by composer Maurice Jarre ("Lawrence of Arabia," "Dr. Zhivago"), the film should be seen as an early frontrunner for garnering many related award nominations early next year.

While the film is a bit too long, occasionally too disjointed, fractured and/or episodic - especially during the opening minutes - it makes up for that with strong performances, powerful moments and a compelling and near epic quality that collectively create a picture worthy of various award nominations and consideration by those who enjoy well-made films. We give "Sunshine" a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed June 2, 2000 / Posted June 23, 2000

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