Sunshine (review)

The Son Also Rises

All politics is local, someone once said, which means that the political, essentially, is personal. Sunshine — a sweeping, semi-autobiographical film from Academy Award-winning director Istvan Szabo — strives to capture the tumultuous political upheaval of the first half of the twentieth century within the story of three generations of a single Budapest family. Does it succeed in this ambitious attempt? Yes… and no.
The fictional Ivan Sonnenschein (Ralph Fiennes: The End of the Affair, Oscar and Lucinda) narrates the film from a present day in the 1960s, telling the tale of his family’s rise from village peasantry in rural Hungary of the late 1800s to a small measure of political power in Budapest by the time of the anti-communist revolution in 1956. Sunshine, the English for “Sonnenschein,” tracks the upward mobility of the working class through the family, as Ivan’s great-grandfather, Emmanuel (David De Keyser) — who made a mint on a cure-all tonic called “A Taste of Sunshine” — sees his sons, Ignatz (also Fiennes) and Gustav (James Frain: Reindeer Games, Elizabeth), move into the professions, the former as a lawyer and judge, the latter a doctor. Ignatz’s son, Adam (again Fiennes), rises further, to Olympic fencing champion; Adam’s son, Ivan, eventually becomes a communist functionary.

But the rise in social and economic fortunes comes at a price: the loss of the family’s identity. Ignatz changes his name from the very Jewish Sonnenschein to the very Hungarian Sors, and later, Adam converts to Catholicism — both are trying to fit in to an ever-changing world in which anti-Semitism seems to be only constant. But the suspicion, hatred, and betrayal that follow the Sonnenschein men seems to echo the cries of Emmanuel’s wife, Rose (Miriam Margolyes: Magnolia, End of Days), who thought the entire family cursed.

Ignatz predicts in 1900 that the twentieth century will be one of peace and justice, Ivan after WWII that communism will end exploitation: Sunshine is full of ironies, not the least of which is its title. The film is relentlessly grim, without much humor or even hope (until, perhaps, the very end of the film). Very little is sunny about it. Would letting the solemnity drop for more than a bare moment have lessened the intended impact? I doubt it. And though Sunshine is epic in scope, beautifully shot, and wonderfully acted, I felt beat over the head by it, as if perhaps this alignment of the personal and the political were a little too forced. Part of the blame has to go to the narration. We can make for ourselves the connections between the chaos of Hungary’s rapidly shifting governments and the turmoil of the Sonnenscheins — we don’t need to be told.

The film is a tour de force for Fiennes, though, and it’s thrilling to see him do such subtly intricate work to distinguish the three Sonnenschein men he portrays. As Ignatz, he’s perfectly matched with Jennifer Ehle (Wilde) as his wife, Valerie, who both display a delicate passion; as Ivan, though, his relationship with the married Carola (Deborah Kara Unger: The Hurricane, Payback) evinces a harsh desperation that Ignatz never showed but that was hinted at in Adam, who had an affair with his brother’s wife, Greta (Rachel Weisz: The Mummy). I only wish it was a more pleasant tour de force to watch.

“Sors” means “fate” or “prophecy,” we’re told by Ignatz, and the family’s story lives up to their new name. The sense of inescapable destiny as we follow this family through the doomed, desperate early decades of the twentieth century make for a dismal, dispirited film.

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