Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Sunshine

By Marjorie Baumgarten

JULY 10, 2000: 

D: Istvan Szabo; with Ralph Fiennes, Rosemary Harris, Rachel Weisz, Jennifer Ehle, Molly Parker, Deborah Kara Unger, James Frain, John Neville, Miriam Margolyes, David de Keyser, Mark Strong, William Hurt. (R, 180 min.)

A family epic that spans three generations as much as it is the story of a century, Sunshine has the kind of sweep and scope that fits its three-hour running time. Beginning in the mid-19th century, the movie tells the story of the Sonnenscheins, a Jewish Hungarian family whose experiences mirror the times in which they live. The family's heritage lies in the secret formula for the herbal tonic "A Taste of Sunshine" (sunshine being the translation of Sonnenschein), which laid the foundation for the family's riches. However, only the great-grandfather and grandfather of the clan produce the tonic. Subsequent generations opt for other careers, allowing the recipe for "sunshine" to disappear from memory. The symbolism is obvious. Each generation has its own struggles. The first generation lives a comfortably bourgeois lifestyle thanks to the tonic, and produces two sons who, in turn, become a doctor and a lawyer. The sons and their orphaned cousin Valerie change their surname to Sors, when advised to find themselves a name that sounds "more Hungarian." The lawyer makes compromises to curry the favor of Emperor Franz Joseph, while the doctor is forced to flee the country for his socialist-minded convictions. The next generation produces an Olympic champion in fencing who converts to Catholicism so that he may practice his sport in the country's top club. His attempt to assimilate proves of little consequence once the Nazis start annihilating anyone with any Jewish ancestry. His predicament provides material for one of the film's most emotionally traumatic scenes. After the Nazis come the Communists, who then splinter into more "isms" that attempt to control the lives of its citizens. The heartbreak of the movie is in watching characters who believe they are the exceptions who can skate past each new shakeup. The movie's lengthy running time tends to drive home its points repititiously, although it poses a wealth of wonderful individual scenes. In fact, Sunshine is so oversized that at times it seems forcibly cramped into three hours. The acting is uniformly good, but it's Ralph Fiennes who steals the show here. He appears in three different roles, one for each generation, and his ability to convey the differences in the three personalities is remarkable. Sunshine by the director of the award-winning Mephisto is ultimately one of those sprawling epics best suited for a rainy day.

2.5 Stars

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