Istvan Szabo is arguably the most influential Hungarian filmmaker
  currently working and his films have always personalized the political.
  The Central European experience, from the waning days of the
  Austro-Hungarian Empire through to the more contemporary times
  under the Warsaw Pact, is the key to the content of his films as well
  as to their symbolic structure. In all of Szabo's films the illusory hopes
  and dreadful realities of the past are presented in the most immediate
  human terms, whether it be the fanciful imaginings of a son for a dead
  parent (
APA 1966), the memory of Nazi deportations (25 FIREMAN'S
1974) or the memory of betrayal by a lover to one's enemies
  (the Oscar-nominated
BIZALOM/CONFIDENCE 1979). His unofficial
  trilogy begun with the Academy Award-winning
MEPHISTO (1981) and
COLONEL REDL (1985) and HANUSSEN (1989) each
  focused on a man caught up in historic events (the Nazi era, the twilight
  of the Hapsburgs, and pre-World War II, respectively) who becomes a
  victim of the times. The actor who collaborates with a Hermann
  Goering-like official in
MEPHISTO and pays a high personal price for it,
  the homosexual Redl embroiled in espionage, and the clairvoyant
  Hanussen sacrificed to politics were essentially brothers under the skin.
  It is perhaps not surprising to learn that shortly after completing the
  third motion picture that the director turned to his own family history
  and penned a sprawling 600 page script. After working with American
  playwright Israel Horowitz, Szabo managed to distill the project to the
  three-hour epic
SUNSHINE, which follows the rise and fall of one
  Jewish family from the late 19th Century through to the middle part
  of the 20th Century.

          Undoubtedly much ink will be spilled over whether or not
SUNSHINE is a great film or not. (Let me state unequivocally that I
  believe it is.) Some will object to its length, others that it attempts
  to capsulize so much history, while others will find parts cold and
  uninteresting. True
SUNSHINE doesn't have the romantic sweep of
  epics like
  because those tales were built around romances. This film is a
  loving portrait of a family and concentrates on politics, something
  that is sorely lacking in American films. (One would have to go back
  to 1981's
REDS to find a politically-themed US motion picture with
  the same kind of grandeur, and in that case, writer Trevor Griffiths
  and writer/director/star Warren Beatty opted to focus on the romance
  of two politically driven individuals.) Because Szabo is working in
  the European tradition not terribly familiar to megaplex audiences,
  the true beauty and craftsmanship in
SUNSHINE may go unappreciated.

          At the heart of
SUNSHINE is an astonishing performance by
  Ralph Fiennes, who essays the significant male figure in three
  generations. Fiennes can be a problematic actor. He burst on the
  scene in the early 1990s with a striking performance as T.E. Lawrence
  in the TV drama
  and he proved further to be a powerful screen presence as Nazi
  commandant Amon Goeth in
SCHINDLER'S LIST. After that, however,
  he became typecast as the suffering adulterer (in everything from
). While he captured well the tortured souls of those
  characters, Fiennes was on the verge of becoming a parody of
  himself. Even in
SUNSHINE there are glimpses of those other
  characters, but the rich script and his acting abilities carry him
  through. He successfully creates three distinctive personae, the
  moralistic Ignatz, a jurist who takes an unpopular political stand,
  his son, the dashing Olympian Adam who finds he cannot escape
  his heritage  under the Nazis and Adam's son, the embittered Ivan
  who becomes a loyal Communist in order to avenge his father and
  falls victim to his own pride. Fiennes adopts unique mannerisms
  and physical traits to define each of the three generations and
  delivers what is arguably one of his best career screen performances
  to date.

          Of the sprawling cast, there is also fine work from James Frain
  as Gustave, Ignatz's more politicized brother, John Neville as the older
  incarnation of Gustave, Miriam Margolyes as the original family
  matriarch, David de Keyser as the patriarch, Rachel Weisz as
  Adam's hot-to-trot sister-in-law, Molly Parker as Adam's stalwart
  wife, Deborah Kara Unger as Ivan's married lover, and William Hurt
  as a Communist cohort of Ivan's.

          The centerpiece of the film, though, and the character that not
  only binds the family but the entire film (and the one who delivers
  the "message" of remaining true to one's origins) is the character of
  Valerie, shared by the mother and daughter Rosemary Harris and
  Jennifer Ehle. As the headstrong young Valerie, Ehle is superb.
  Resembling a young Meryl Streep, she perfectly captures the
  ardent passion Valerie exhibits for her cousin Ignatz. (She more
  than defrosts Fiennes' usual chilly screen presence in much the same
  manner Julianne Moore did in
  seamlessly assumes the role in the second section of the film, she
  makes Valerie into a dignified, serene matriarch. Despite numerous
  hardships (WWII, internment in a concentration camp, taking in
  boarders in order to remain in her family's home), Harris' Valerie
  never flinches. She and Neville share a lovely reunion scene and
  Harris' scenes with Fiennes (as her son and grandson) are also
  beautifully played.

          This is clearly a labor of love for Szabo and while some of
  the time shifts are a bit abrupt (the original cut reportedly ran some
  five hours), that is a small flaw in an otherwise engrossing and
  lovely film. Special mention has to be made of Gyorgi Szakacs'
  exquisitely rendered costumes, Maurice Jarre's appropriately rousing
  and romantic score, Attila Kovacs' marvelous production design
  and Lajos Koltai's superior photography.

Rating:        A-
© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.