A Fiennes Mess

Multi-generational Sunshine is a triple threat in more ways than one

I never imagined the day would come when I would cringe to see Ralph Fiennes on screen. Not only is he shamelessly good-looking, but, whether playing the brooding, remote figure doomed by love in The English Patient or the bloodless commandant of a Nazi death camp in Schindler's List, he projects a haunting, all-enveloping intensity. Inferior performances in such films as Oscar and Lucinda and The End of the Affair dampened but could not extinguish my enthusiasm. In Sunshine, however, the British actor portrays not one but three different characters, and does none of them well. His presence is only one of the many problems plaguing this soap opera of a historical drama, but since he plays a triad of roles, he makes an especially easy target. Certainly a bigger problem is what the script demands of Fiennes. This saga of three generations of a Jewish-Hungarian family whose lives span the volatile history of the 20th century is a melodramatic mess.

That this mess should come from the hand of Istvan Szabo, the brilliant Hungarian director of Mephisto and Colonel Redl, is the real shocker. Szabo has always been fascinated with issues of power and morality, and how the latter is inevitably compromised in pursuit of the former. His heroes practice an unusually perilous form of self-deception. Played out against the 20th century's most cataclysmic political events -- the fall of the Hapsburg dynasty, Hitler's rise to power, the tyranny of Stalin -- their desire for fame, power or simple social acceptance overrides everything. Personal loyalties, political convictions and ethical principles are sacrificed almost without realizing it. Hendrik Hofgen, the protagonist in Mephisto; the eponymous heroes of both Colonel Redl and Hanussen; and three generations of Sonnenschein men (the characters played by Fiennes in Szabo's latest film) barter away something more precious than their lives; they sell their souls.

Sunshine (Sonnenschein in German) is Szabo's second English-language picture (after Meeting Venus in 1991). Narrated by Ivan Sonnenschein, the present-day scion of the family, the story begins in the late 1890s when Ivan's great-grandfather Emmanuel is a boy who sets off from his small Hungarian village to make his way in the world. He parlays his father's recipe for a tasty elixir -- dubbed Sunshine Tonic -- into a position of wealth and respectability.

Ralph Fiennes plays three roles through three generations of a Jewish-Hungarian family story in Sunshine, and he's bad in all of them.
Ralph Fiennes plays three roles through three generations of a Jewish-Hungarian family story in Sunshine, and he's bad in all of them.

Emmanuel produces two sons, Ignatz (played as an adult by Fiennes) and Gustav (played as an adult by James Frain). He also adopts and raises as his own child the daughter of his late brother. Valerie (portrayed as a young woman by Jennifer Ehle) is a free-spirited beauty with sparkling eyes and a knowing smile (in a certain light, Ehle looks all the world like Meryl Streep). She and Ignatz fall in love and, against their parents' wishes, marry.

Since anti-Semitism was pervasive at the end of the 19th century, and a constant obstacle to both social and professional advancement, Ignatz, a well-respected lower-court judge, is told he will never be promoted unless he adopts a "more Hungarian" name. Vowing never to abandon his faith, Ignatz, along with Gustav and Valerie, changes his name to Sors. But it is politics, not religion, that eventually divides the family. Ignatz, a committed monarchist, worships the emperor, while Gustav, a socialist, decries the system; Valerie sides with her brother-in-law. Ultimately, though, it is Ignatz's emotional coldness that dooms the marriage.

The cycle of political, personal and religious conflict continues into the next generation when Ignatz and Valerie's son Adam (portrayed as an adult by Fiennes, in the second of his three roles) engages in his own forbidden romance and abandons his faith completely in order to pursue his dream of becoming an Olympic fencer. He learns, too late, that conversion to Catholicism offers no protection from the Nazis.

Adam's son Ivan (the film's narrator and the third role undertaken by Fiennes) survives the death camps only to get caught up in Stalin's madness. Closing his eyes to the daily atrocities (just as his father did to the perils of the Third Reich), Ivan joins the Communist party, rising rapidly. Keeping up the family tradition, he embarks on his own illicit affair -- this one thankfully not incestuous.

Were it not so grating to sit through, Sunshine's preposterous story line might be laughable. At three hours, it proves especially irritating. Fiennes simply cannot pass for a 19-year-old boy, one of his three roles. Nor does he succeed any better when playing the middle-aged Ignatz. However, the overriding problem is his acting, which has never been so amateurish. He adopts a series of poses -- shy, lovelorn, bitter, arrogant -- but never fleshes them out. Adam, in particular, comes across as a twit.

Very few of the actors emerge with any dignity. Jennifer Ehle is one who does; she inhabits her character completely, somehow managing to overcome such melodramatic lines as, "I can't live without love. You love only the emperor." Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for her real-life mother, Rosemary Harris, who plays Valerie as an older woman. Harris is an exceptional actress, and here she does the best job possible, given that her character has a relentlessly upbeat personality that makes you want to slap her. She waltzes through life, blithely accepting every terrible thing that happens; no matter how grim a situation, she always offers a cheery little homily like, "You must try and find joy in your life." When Ivan tells her he has lost his great-grandfather's pocket watch, she doesn't miss a beat. "Don't worry, dear," she coos, "much more important things have disappeared -- love, people. What's a pocket watch?"

The film opens in the latter half of the 19th century and concludes after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It isn't easy to cover so much ground in three hours. Szabo seems determined to mention every historical event that transpires; by necessity it is a whirlwind tour. The end of World War II, the rise of Stalin, the purges, the Hungarian invasion and the Soviet invasion all whiz by in a flash. We see Ivan condemned to five years in a Soviet prison one moment; one short scene later he is being released.

Sunshine looks beautiful, all sepia-toned and elegantly lensed by Szabo's regular cinematographer Lajos Koltai, but it is embarrassingly melodramatic and has no emotional impact, save for one sequence: the harrowing scene of Adam in a Nazi labor camp refusing to acknowledge that he is a Jew, and what happens to him as a result. While my admiration for Szabo is not diminished by this very disappointing film, it is profoundly sad to see him so completely lose his footing.

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