Too much Fiennes eclipses `Sunshine'

Movie review

July 14, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"Sunshine," a historical epic from Hungarian director Istvan Szabo about a family - and a country - continually being ripped apart for daring to be true to itself, has too much going for it to resort to gimmickry.

But it does, by offering Ralph Fiennes in a three-part role as the patriarchs of three successive generations of a Jewish family struggling to find its way through 20th-century Hungary. As good an actor as Fiennes is, such a stunt can't help but detract from the story. Audiences will be so busy being impressed with the different shadings the actor brings to his three characters that they'll inevitably be diverted from what's happening in the movie. And that's a shame.

Fiennes first gets to play Ignatz Sonnenschein, a Hungarian Jew who seems to bring a curse on the family by ignoring his parents' wishes and marrying a cousin, Valerie (a deliciously willful Jennifer Ehle), who has been raised as his sister. In quick succession, Ignatz renounces his Jewish name (though not his Jewish morals) to better fit in with the established political order, becomes a high-ranking judge, steadfastly supports the empire during World War I, and ends up having his reputation destroyed by the revolutionaries who come to power after the war.

But that's nothing compared to what happens to his son, Adam (Fiennes again). He becomes an Olympic champion fencer and national hero, only to be thrown into a concentration camp after the Nazis come to power and take a dim view of Jews with heroic reputations. Eventually, and as his young son looks on helplessly, Adam is tortured and executed by a particularly sadistic guard.

When the war finally ends, that son, Ivan (Fiennes again), vows vengeance on those who so brutalized his father. To do that, unfortunately, he signs on as a zealous member of the now-ruling Communist party, whose leaders, he soon realizes, are little better than the Nazis they replaced.

All the while, Ivan is counseled by his grandmother, Valerie (played as she grows older by Rosemary Harris), who urges him to be true to the honorable legacy left behind by his father and grandfather - a legacy Ivan doesn't always feel that comfortable wearing.

With its three-hour length, "Sunshine" can't help but drag at times. But director Szabo, whose 1981 film, "Mephisto," won a foreign-film Oscar, displays an obvious passion for his country. The result is a film that is equal parts sad - it's painful, watching Hungary continually suffer because of its leaders' poor choices - and inspirational, as the Sonnenschein family manages to exhibit extraordinary inner strength.

The result is also a film that deserves to be remembered as more than just a one-man show.

`Sunshine'

Starring Ralph Fiennes, Jennifer Ehle, Rosemary Harris

Directed by Istvan Szabo

Released by Paramount Classics

Running time 180 minutes

Rated R (Sexuality, scenes of wartime torture)

Sun score: ***

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