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Ain't No Sunshine

Despite revisiting the 20th century's cataclysmic events, Istvín Szabó's latest lacks emotional punch

I never imagined the day would come when I would cringe to see Ralph Fiennes on screen. Not only is he shamelessly good-looking, but, whether playing the brooding, remote figure doomed by love in The English Patient or the bloodless commandant of a Nazi death camp in Schindler's List, he projects a haunting, all-enveloping intensity. Inferior performances in such films 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 a 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 20th century, is a melodramatic mess.

That this mess should come from the hand of István Szabó, the brilliant Hungarian director of Mephisto and Colonel Redl, is the real shocker. Szabó has always been fascinated with issues of power and morality, and how the latter is inevitably compromised in pursuit of the former. His heroes practice an unusually perilous form of self-deception. Played out against the 20th 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 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 Szabó's latest film) barter away something more precious than their lives; they sell their souls.

Sunshine ("Sonnenschein" in Hungarian) is Szabó's second English-language picture (following Meeting Venus, in 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.

Ralph Fiennes plays three different characters in Sunshine, all of which are too young for him.
Ralph Fiennes plays three different characters in Sunshine, all of which are too young for him.

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. She and Ignatz fall in love and, against their parents' wishes, marry.

Since anti-Semitism was pervasive at the end of the 19th 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 a 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 is simply no way he can pass for a 19-year-old boy. Nor does he succeed any better when playing the middle-aged Ignatz, since 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.

Very few of the actors emerge with any dignity. Ehle is one who does; she inhabits her character completely, somehow managing to overcome such melodramatic 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. 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?"

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