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The film follows a Jewish family living in Hungary through three generations, rising from humble beginnings to positions of wealth and power in the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire. The patriarch becomes a prominent judge but is torn when his government sanctions anti-Jewish persecutions. His son converts to Christianity to advance his career as a champion fencer and Olympic hero, but is caught up in the Holocaust. Finally, the grandson, after surviving war, revolution, loss and betrayal, realizes that his ultimate allegiance must be to himself and his heritage. Written by
`Sunshine' is a forceful and wonderful film that follows four generations of a Jewish Hungarian family through seventy tumultuous years of Hungarian history. The story is extremely well done with rich finely etched characters. The screenplay is better suited for a miniseries than a three hour film simply because there is so much material to cover. Three hours is both too long and too short; the story is emotionally exhausting making it too long for one sitting, yet the total length is not long enough to do the subject matter justice.
Hungarian Writer/Director Istvan Szabo captures Hungary's turbulent transition from empire to fascist state to soviet satellite weaving the history of the times into the lives of this extraordinary family. He puts a human face on the historical facts giving us a disturbingly real look at what it might have been like to live through it, especially from the Jewish perspective.
Despite a whirlwind pace that requires years to be spanned in minutes, Szabo manages to conjure deep and insightful character studies of the members of each generation. His period renderings are exquisite from costumes to props to locations. This is a wonderfully textured presentation with history layered over the human stories, addressing the many indignities suffered by Jews in Hungary during the period, and the many concessions made to merely stay alive. It is a story that contains both triumph and tragedy, presented with amazing candor.
Ralph Fiennes gives three incredible performances as the grandfather, father and son of the patriarchy. Szabo has endured criticism for casting the same actor in three roles, but in this case it is an excellent choice. Fiennes is a versatile artist and personalizes three radically different characters, slipping on their personalities like a glove. He loses himself in each, rendering them all passionately but appropriately based on the motivations established in Szabo's careful character development. With Szabo's guidance, it is clear that Fiennes has an inherent understanding of the psyche of his three characters and plays them with believable nuance.
Two different actresses play Valerie and each is splendid. Jennifer Ehle plays the young Valerie and endows her with ardor and vivacity. She establishes Valerie as the strongest continuing character in the film, providing linkage between the past and the present. In another stroke of casting brilliance, Szabo selects Ehle's real life mother, Rosemary Harris as the elder Valerie. The clear resemblance linked with Harris' magnetic performance adds fullness to Valerie's later years. William Hurt and James Frain lead an ensemble of strong supporting actors that give the film great intensity and depth of talent.
This thoughtful and emotionally provocative character study is engrossing and compelling. I rated it a 9/10 only because I wish Szabo would have gone deeper and divided it into two or three installments. On a dramatic and artistic level, this film is first rate.
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