Bad Day, Sunshine

Sunshine

I never imagined the day would come when I would cringe to see Ralph Fiennes onscreen. Not only is he shamelessly good-looking but, whether playing the brooding, remote figure doomed by love in The English Patientor the bloodless commandant of a Nazi death camp in Schindler's List, he projects a haunting, enveloping intensity. Inferior performances in films such as Oscar and Lucinda and The End of the Affair dampened but could not extinguish my enthusiasm. In Sunshine, however, the British actor portrays not one but three different characters, and does none of them well. His presence is only one of the many problems plaguing this soap opera of an historical drama, but since he plays a triad of roles, he makes an especially easy target. Certainly a bigger problem is what the script demands of Fiennes. This saga of three generations of a Jewish-Hungarian family whose lives span the volatile history of the Twentieth Century is a melodramatic mess.

That this mess should come from the hand of Istvan Szabo, the brilliant Hungarian director of Mephisto and Colonel Redl, is the real shocker. Szabo has always been fascinated with issues of power and morality, and how the latter inevitably is compromised in pursuit of the former. His heroes practice an unusually perilous form of self-deception. Played out against some of the Twentieth Century's most cataclysmic political events (the fall of the Hapsburg dynasty, Hitler's rise to power, the tyranny of Stalin), their desire for fame, power, or simple social acceptance overrides everything. Personal loyalties, political convictions, and ethical principles are sacrificed almost without the viewer realizing it. Hendrik Hofgen, the protagonist in Mephisto; the eponymous heroes of both Colonel Redl and Hanussen; and three generations of Sonnenschein men (the characters played by Fiennes in Szabo's latest film) barter away something more precious than their lives: They sell their souls.

Sunshine (Sonnenschein in Hungarian) is Szabo's second English-language picture (after Meeting Venusin 1991). Narrated by Ivan Sonnenschein, the present-day scion of the family, the story begins in the late 1890s, when Ivan's great-grandfather, Emmanuel, is a boy who sets off from his small Hungarian village to make his way in the world. He parlays his father's recipe for a tasty elixir -- dubbed Sunshine Tonic -- into a position of wealth and respectability.

Emmanuel produces two sons, Ignatz (played as an adult by Fiennes) and Gustav (played as an adult by James Frain). He also adopts and raises as his own child the daughter of his late brother. Valerie (portrayed as a young woman by Jennifer Ehle) is a free-spirited beauty with sparkling eyes and a knowing smile (in a certain light, Ehle looks to all the world like Meryl Streep). She and Ignatz fall in love and, against their parents' wishes, marry.

Since anti-Semitism was pervasive at the end of the Nineteenth Century and a constant obstacle to both social and professional advancement, Ignatz, a well-respected lower-court judge, is told he will never be promoted unless he adopts a "more Hungarian" name. Vowing never to abandon his faith, Ignatz, along with Gustav and Valerie, changes his name to Sors. But it is politics, not religion, that eventually divides the family. Ignatz, a committed monarchist, worships the emperor while Gustav, a socialist, decries the system; Valerie sides with her brother-in-law. Ultimately, though, it is Ignatz's emotional coldness that dooms the marriage.

The cycle of political, personal, and religious conflict continues into the next generation when Ignatz and Valerie's son, Adam (portrayed as an adult by Fiennes, in the second of his three roles), engages in his own forbidden romance and abandons his faith completely to pursue his dream of becoming an Olympic fencer. He learns, too late, that conversion to Catholicism offers no protection from the Nazis.

Adam's son, Ivan (the film's narrator and the third role undertaken by Fiennes), survives the death camps only to get caught up in Stalin's madness. Closing his eyes to the daily atrocities (just as his father did to the perils of the Third Reich), Ivan joins the Communist Party, rising rapidly. Keeping up the family tradition, he embarks on his own illicit affair -- this one, thankfully, not incestuous.

Were it not so grating to sit through, Sunshine's preposterously melodramatic story line might be laughable. At three hours it proves especially irritating. Fiennes is forced to play three characters, all of whom are substantially younger than he is in real life; there simply is no way he can pass for a nineteen-year-old boy. Nor does he succeed any better when playing the middle-age Ignatz, for the overriding problem is his acting, which has never been so amateurish. He adopts a series of poses (shy, lovelorn, bitter, arrogant) but never fleshes them out. Adam, in particular, comes across as a twit.

Very few of the actors emerge with any dignity. Jennifer Ehle is one who does; she inhabits her character completely, somehow managing to overcome such lines as "I can't live without love. You love only the emperor." Unfortunately the same cannot be said for her real-life mother, Rosemary Harris, who plays Valerie as an older woman. Harris is an exceptional actress, and here she does the best job possible, given that her character has a relentlessly upbeat personality that makes you want to slap her. She waltzes through life blithely accepting every terrible thing that happens; no matter how grim a situation, she always offers a cheery little homily like, "You must try and find joy in your life." When Ivan tells her he has lost his great-grandfather's pocket watch, she doesn't miss a beat. "Don't worry dear," she coos, "much more important things have disappeared -- love, people. What's a pocket watch?"

The film opens in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century and concludes after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It isn't easy to cover so much ground in three hours. Szabo seems determined to mention every historical event that transpires; by necessity it is a whirlwind tour. The end of World War II, the rise of Stalin, the purges, the Hungarian invasion, and the Soviet invasion all whiz by in a flash. We see Ivan condemned to five years in a Soviet prison one moment; one short scene later he is being released.

Sunshinelooks beautiful, sepia-toned and elegantly lensed by Szabo's regular cinematographer Lajos Koltai, but it has no emotional impact, save for one sequence: the harrowing scene of Adam in a Nazi labor camp, refusing to acknowledge he is a Jew, and the resulting events. While my admiration for Szabo is not diminished by this very disappointing film, it is profoundly sad to see him so completely lose his footing.

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