"Sunshine" requires what few films ask of viewers anymore: patience. This three-hour intimate epic has a leisurely pace that belies its grand ambitions. Writer-director Istvãn Szabóattempts to show the historical sweep of the 20th century and its impact on his native Hungary through the lives of one fictional family, the Sonnenscheins.
Their name means "sunshine," although they are more often than not caught by the dark clouds gathering over Budapest, starting with the decline of the Austro-Hungarian empire, through a fascist alliance with Germany and World War II, and into the Communist regime whose grip finally loosens as the century comes to a close.
With the sociopolitical scope of a massive Russian novel, "Sunshine" is packed with complex characters suffering through massive reversals of fortune. The English-language script, by Szabó and playwright Israel Horovitz, is a rich tapestry in which the fate of four generations is determined by religious heritage, individual miscalculations and the whims of political extremism.
Szabó wisely chooses to put one face on the pride and suffering of the Sonnenscheins: Ralph Fiennes. An actor who was lauded from his first screen appearances, Fiennes only now lives up to his promise with this complex and beautifully nuanced performance. He plays three different men, each one distinctive and particular to the era in which he lived.
Ignatz is an a upright judge who changes the family name to Sors in an effort to distance himself from his Jewish roots during a time of nationalist fervor. His son Adam is a swashbuckler of sorts, an Olympic fencer who believes his status makes him immune to political vacillations. Ivan, Adam's son, throws himself fervently into enforcing the totalitarian state regime until his revenge-based belief system begins to unravel.
Each man is influenced by women, but none more than Valerie (played at different ages by Jennifer Ehle and her mother, Rosemary Harris), Ignatz's independence-minded wife, who serves as the family's heart and its conscience.
The characters in Sunshine are always trying to be a part of their times and eagerly trade in their past for a future, not realizing that one is just as important as the other.