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IN SHORT: Ralph Fiennes finely acting in yet another epic . . .
An epic tale of five generations of (what begins as) a Jewish family in the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Istvan Szabo's Sunshine allows star Ralph Fiennes to flex his acting muscles as he plays three separate roles as a hundred years of time rolls endlessly across the big screen. With its three hour running time, two thoughts may flow through your heads...
1) if it's so good,
why isn't it being held until November?, and
Both thoughts are legit and both make it sound as if Sunshine is an utter bomb, which it is not. It is, actually, a splendidly acted and dazzling-to-watch two hours of film, recreating a world that hasn't existed in almost a century. The problem is that this two hour wonder is followed by a third, which essentially kills all the fun. But, says the film student inside, historical epics aren't supposed to be fun, to which I reply that I would rather be left wanting to see more, than to walk away without a positive, spirit enhancing conclusion to the piece -- which Sunshine tries to deliver and doesn't.
Sunshine is the story of the family Sonnenschein, whose patriarch Emmanuel (David De Keyser) made his fortune peddling an herbal tonic, brand named "Sunshine," from a pack on his back. Once successful and established, with a factory cranking out his product and its recipe secreted inside a hidden notebook, Emmanuel takes a wife and raises his family. Gustave (James Frain) and Ignatz (Ralph Fiennes) are his pride and joys. Valerie (Jennifer Ehle), an orphaned cousin on his wife's side, is also raised as a sister to the boys. The family is nearly split in two by political affiliations and the declared love of Ignatz and his cousin, who marry despite "their" father's wishes. Ignatz, an incorruptible judge, changes his name to "Sors" for political reasons -- no obvious Jews are allowed government -- and rises higher and higher in the Empire, until historical events shuffle him off the screen. Gustave flees to France, to be seen later, and Valerie raises her son Adam (Fiennes), who becomes a champion fencer and a Gold Medal recipient on the Hungarian Olympic team in Berlin.
To do so, Adam must turn his back on his religion and become a Roman Catholic. In doing so, he meets his also-to-be-converted wife Hannah (Molly Parker) and fathers a son, Ivan (Fiennes). Then comes The Big One, where conversion and/or status in the country cannot protect everyone in the family from doom. All of this, the epic tale of a family's rise and fall and redemption and survival, is enough.
Once you get past the War (you'll hear a crowd chanting "Stalin! Stalin! Stalin!") we suggest you pack up and leave, wanting more. If you wish to sit through the Communist era, prepare to emerge like a balloon that has deflated. It isn't that Sunshine fails here, it is just that the film (perhaps all too accurately) portrays a love-less, joy-less, and fully hypocritical time. Ivan and the remains of his family, including his grandmother Valerie (Rosemary Harris) a returned uncle Gustave (John Neville) must survive under Communism. Ivan must deal with his experience in the camps and can never let the war go; his job is to hunt down the traitors, first from the war and then the witchhunt of the Stalinist purges. Important characters in this stage include William Hurt as Ivan's boss and Deborah Kara Unger as the wife of a connected party. For Ivan and his family this era, called "The Great Diminishing" by Szabo is one bad turn after another. Even with a conclusion set in the post-Communist free era, all that is left for the living is a sense that they have survived.
And survival is not enough. Ivan's redemption, such as it is, is not enough -- and I've left out tons of material laying out the bare bones of the story for you. The first two hours are truly a magnificent recreation of that time and world . . . and here you should know that I can trace my family back to a time they were called Wittenbourg and lived dead center in the middle of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I may bring more historical baggage into the theater with me, but this does not mean I've overinflated my enjoyment of the first two acts. Fiennes' roles, and Rosemary Harris' later, are both unique and touching. The staging and production values are equally great. Szabo's original five hour long script, in Hungarian, has survived both translation and reduction with the help of noted playwright Israel Horwitz. The film dearly needs an intermission and, I'm guessing, another half hour to show if and how Ivan is truly redeemed.
The Commies wrecked it for everybody, I guess . . .
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Sunshine, he would have paid...
Rental level. If you can find it on the big screen at a decent price, the first two hours are well worth the expenditure of cash.
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