This three-hour “intimate epic” by Istvan Szabo, the Hungarian
writer-director best known for the Oscar-winning “Mephisto”
(1981) and its successor “Colonel Redl” (1985), opens with a
bang as a herbal distillery operated by an innkeeper in a small
rural village explodes, killing the owner and his wife and
orphaning their young son Emmanuel Sonnenschein. The unhappy
event introduces a film which, had Warner Brothers released
it back in it 1940s, would have been advertised as a “sprawling
family saga”; it isn’t exactly a bomb, but it doesn’t fulfill
its high aspirations, either.

To make another advertising reference, if “Sunshine” were being
pushed in one of those horrific late-night TV commercials, it
would probably be referred to as “three, three, three pictures
in one!” It’s an ambitious triptych that aims to encompass no
less than a century of Hungarian history by dramatizing the
vicissitudes of three generations of Sonnensheins; in each
case the central character is played by Ralph Fiennes, not
for laughs as Peter Sellers or Alec Guinness used to do, but
in deadly earnest; and in each he’s undone by anti-Semitism and
an imprudent love affair–the recurrent leitmotifs of the

Fiennes first appears as Emmanuel’s son Ignatz, an incorruptible
lawyer who dismays his parents by wedding his cousin Valerie
(Jennifer Ehle) and sacrifices his identity by changing his
surname from the clearly Jewish “Sonnenschein” to the more
acceptable “Sors” in order to enable him to rise within the
ranks of the bigoted Austro-Hungarian imperial government which
endured through World War I. (It’s symptomatic of the script’s
heavy-handedness that in Latin “sors” can mean “chance,” “fate” or
“destiny.”) Ignatz’s devotion to the empire is contrasted with
the radicalism of both his brother Gustave (James Frain) and
Valerie, and after the war both the regime he had unwisely served
and his marriage collapse, leaving him embittered and enfeebled.
In hour two the focus shifts to Ignatz’s son Adam (also played
by Fiennes), who becomes an outstanding sabreur during the
thirties under a fascist regime and converts to Catholicism in
order to secure a place on the Hungarian team during the
1936 Berlin Olympics (he wins, of course). (The focus on
fencing in this segment of the film, it should be noted, may be
historically valid, but it comes across as dramatically rather
ridiculous). At the same time he enters into an affair with
his own sister-in-law Greta (Rachel Weisz). As Hungarian
fascism grows more virulent, however, the family suffers
persecution in the 1940s; Adam dies horribly in a prison camp
as his son Ivan looks on, and so does Adam’s wife Hannah
(Molly Parker), a fellow Catholic convert. When Ivan (now
played again by Fiennes) returns to Budapest after the war, he
finds only his aged grandmother Valerie (Rosemary Harris) still
alive. Ivan joins the security arm of the newly-established
communist regime, which he serves as loyally as Ignatz had
the old empire; but the same difficulties embroil him that
had ruined his father and grandfather. He engages in an
affair with the wife of a high officer (Deborah Kara Unger),
and is ultimately forced to betray his security mentor, Andor
Knorr (William Hurt), a Jew who’s falsely accused of Zionist
conspiracy in a new frenzy of anti-Semitism. Enraged by the
duplicity of the regime, Ivan becomes a dissident, but is
imprisoned for his role in the unsuccessful uprising of 1956;
after serving his sentence, helegally reclaims the name
Sonnenschein and the identity his family has so long abandoned,
presaging Hungary’s move into post-communist freedom as the
century draws to a close.

This precis indicates what a broad canvas of historical
background and family drama Szabo tries to draw here, but
unfortunately the outcome resembles a cross between History 101
and a Halequin Romance. In trying to cover the events of a
century, the script can present them in only the sketchiest
fashion; it often resorts to hamfisted narration by Fiennes
(speaking as Ivan) to clue the audience in on what’s happening
(a practice especially bothersome in the first hour, where
the overlayed monlogue sometimes seems wall-to-wall, but it’s
employed in the last 120 minutes, too). In addition, Szabo
frequently intercuts newsreel footage to situate events–which
incidentally requires him to shoot some of the new scenes in
black-and-white to make them “fit,” before abruptly reverting
to color. Even worse, though, are the melodramatic familial
episodes set upon this evolving historical stage, which come
across as either crude political didacticism or as “Dallas” and
“Dynasty”-flavored soap opertic cliche. The successive
portrayals of anti-Semitism have a certain power, of course,
but that results more from the inherent despicability of
the phenomenon rather than from any special skill in its
depiction (the exception is the graphic murder of Adam by
fascist thugs, which is undeniably potent); by comparison
even the recent “East-West” seems almost a model of subtlety.
But the “romantic” elements are still more problematical. The
characters fall into (always forbidden) love with absurd
alacrity and into bed just as quickly, and their dialogue is
frequently overwrought and artificial. Simply put, the
picture doesn’t have the time to give these interludes any
sense of reality; they remain slightly silly plot contrivances,
not properly prepared for and so remarkably unconvincing. The
“family saga” portion of the story thus becomes suggestive of
a novel with nothing but introductory titles and chapters
running for single paragraphs; the effect is too often
ludicrously abbreviated, despite the length of the whole.

The cast works hard to bring this variable material to life,
but it’s a losing battle. Fiennes gives each of his three
characters a different bearing and tone, but he can’t flesh
any one of them out as fully as he did the brutish Nazi of
“Schindler’s List.” It probably seemed a clever notion to
have the mother-daughter team of Harris and Ehle play the
older and younger versions of Valerie, the character whose
presence in all three episodes ties the tale together; but
though both are quite effective, their off-screen relationship
doesn’t appreciably improve their onscreen credibility. None
of the various other women in the lives of the three Sors
make much of an impression, nor do James Frain and John Neville
as the younger and older versions of Gustave. Hurt underplays
so strenuously as the doomed Knorr that he becomes nearly a
self-caricature; it probably would have been better to use a
less recognizable (and less fussy) actor in the role. One
must compliment the production design, which achieves
considerable richness in the interior scenes on what’s clearly
a modest budget; there’s also pleasure to be had from the
background score, which uses a good deal of material from
classical compositions and local folk music; the newly-
composed elements credited to Maurice Jarre, however, are
little more than repetitions of a thinly-disguised reworking
of the main theme from the Schubert “Fantasie” which is played
at various points by characters in the picture.

The title of “Sunshine,” of course, refers to the family’s
original surname–an obvious bit of irony, given its unhappy
experiences–but also to the name of the herbal elixir which
had been brewing in the first-scene distillery explosion and
on which Emmanuel afterward built the family fortune. After
his death, however, the booklet containing the recipe for it is
lost; characters periodically search for it throughout the
remainder of the picture, and clearly it represents their
longing for a past which cannot be recaptured and their
persistent search for acceptance and happiness in a society
which regularly proves brutal and repressive. But the emphasis
on this lost recipe-book and its reflection of the family’s
destiny is a screenwriting device which strikes one as overly
“literary” and precious, a failed attempt to replicate the
mysterious power of Rosebud in the structure of “Citizen Kane.”
And when the fate of the book is at last revealed (in a
way that indicates just how apt the “Kane” analogy is), it
has nowhere near the sense of rightness the earlier film
achieved. It’s always dangerous to copy the best–if
the outcome is decent but unexceptional, the comparison will be
devastating. In the case of “Sunshine,” one can admire its
ambition, but not the mediocrity of the result.