Istvan Szabo's Sunshine, which he's directed in English, aspires to epic sweep and Tolstoyan grandeur. It runs almost three hours. But there's still a breathless, hurried quality that doesn't suit its many tangled dramas very well. The impeccably literate Hungarian director (best known in the United States for his 1981 Oscar winner, Mephisto) means to sum up the entire twentieth century in the saga of one ambitious and tragically flawed Budapest family, the Sonnenscheins, and he crams so much political wretchedness, sexual infidelity, European tragedy and personal betrayal into such a relatively small space that it's like being whisked through a house of horrors and then left dazed and bewildered on the front porch.
At Sunshine's frantic pace, World War I lasts about four minutes, and Hitler seems to be in power for three. Passionate love affairs come and go like gusts of wind, and four generations of Sonnenscheins are banged around by fate and circumstance like pinballs at the video arcade. Ordinarily, it's difficult to make a case for that slackest, most indulgent of forms -- the TV miniseries -- but given the ground Szabo has to cover and the breadth of his intentions, Sunshine might have been more effective as, say, half a dozen two-hour episodes rather than the overfilled movie he's given us. What's good for The Sopranos might suit the Sonnenscheins as well.
That complaint registered, let's also argue for what's great here -- a tour de force by the fine British actor Ralph Fiennes. He played a vile Nazi murderer in Schindler's List and a doomed wartime lover in The English Patient, and now he does splendid triple duty for Szabo, portraying three successive generations of Sonnenschein (translation: "Sunshine") men, who are both the creatures and the victims of their time. To be sure, their surname is drenched in irony. As the family grandfather clock rings in the New Year 1900, Fiennes's optimistic Ignatz Sonnenschein assures the family: "I predict this will be a century of love, justice and tolerance." On the other hand, Emperor Franz Joseph already turns a blind eye to poverty, and because anti-semitism is rampant in the empire, Ignatz has already bowed to the bigots and changed his name to "Sors" -- because it sounds "more Hungarian" and is more apt to win him the judgeship he seeks. As far as love and justice in the new era are concerned, the archduke is soon to be assassinated in Sarajevo, plunging the world into war.
If Ignatz Sors is seduced by power and deluded by "assimilation," his son Adam (Fiennes again) has a bold taste for celebrity. Mocked by Christians in the schoolyard, he takes revenge by working to become Hungary's national fencing champion and the gold-medalist at the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Superficially cocky and dashing, Adam is also plagued by doubts, and he, too, compromises -- by converting to Roman Catholicism. If we had questions about the burning issue facing Szabo and his co-writer, famed playwright Israel Horovitz, they are soon gone: "Identity" is the watchword of the twentieth century (and of twentieth-century literature), and in the Sonnenscheins' history, we see identity established, identity destroyed, identity reclaimed. Whatever else may go wrong or feel vaguely false in Sunshine, there's no denying the power of this theme. Indeed, the third character that Fiennes essays, Ignatz's grandson and Adam's son, Ivan, embodies all of the family's hazards and its hopes. Traumatized by witnessing his father's gruesome murder at the hands of the Nazis, Ivan first seeks revenge by joining the Communist secret police in postwar Budapest, then seeks peace by reclaiming his family's name and forgotten legacy.
Ignatz and Adam both have brothers who figure importantly in the family drama -- especially where the Sonnenscheins' clearly metaphorical infidelity is concerned. But larger issues are even more prominent. The political and social lessons packed into Sunshine are not new, but they certainly bear repeating. As tormented Ivan learns -- the hard way -- totalitarianism is evil no matter what uniform it wears, real love is eternal, and the progress of the human soul is the one noble quest. At film's end, cinematographer Lajos Koltai's camera rises from a tattered city street to look down from the rooftops, and we understand: The power of knowing who you are overcomes obstacles.
Ralph Fiennes's work here is nothing short of astonishing. While firmly establishing family resemblances, physical and spiritual, he manages to give unique sense and texture to each of his three characters, and each has some unforgettable set pieces. For Ignatz, whose self-loathing comes to destroy him from the inside, there's the moment when he looks at himself, bearded and bespectacled, in a smoky mirror and spits at his own image. For Adam, there's his beautifully choreographed triumph at the Olympic fencing finals, enacted under the symbolic interlocking rings and a huge swastika, followed by the betrayal of his heroism at the hands of his own countrymen. For defeated and driven Ivan, whose journey through the Communist bureaucracy is tinted a sickly blue-green, there's a eulogy in a graveyard, where he honors a slain friend and unburdens himself of illusion.
The Sonnenschein women are just as compelling, if not quite as prominent. Ignatz's beautiful young wife and first cousin, Valerie (Jennifer Ehle), who becomes a photographer, loves beauty and comes to be the family's wise matriarch (Rosemary Harris). Adam's wife, Hannah (Molly Parker), represents the spirit of a new, modern age that will come crashing down; his mistress, Greta (Rachel Weisz), who also happens to be his sister-in-law, is the voice of fear and loathing as the Nazis move in with anti-Jewish restriction laws and, eventually, clubs and guns. Ivan's mistress, Agota (Andrea Fullajtar), is the wife of a former French resistance hero and a woman looking for safety in a notoriously unsafe world. In Agota's beautiful face, we see all the uncertainties of a tragedy without end.
As a thinking, feeling filmmaker, Istvan Szabo has few peers. I only wish he had even more time and space to tell his compelling story of a family and a century in crisis.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.