It must be quite the daunting task for a filmmaker to tell a multi-generational story that also manages to cover a number of the major political events of the 20th century and, at the same time, gets across a central message. In this case, it's a powerful message against anti-Semitism. But that's exactly what Hungarian director Istvan Szabo has miraculously done here.
Be forewarned, though, that the film's running time is right at the three-hour mark. There's no real reason for this excessive length, since there are definitely whole scenes that the film could do without and still be a piece of solid cinema. But having sat through it and gotten to take in its richly layered story and to know its interesting set of complex characters, it's very difficult to pick which scenes could have been excised.
Sunshine starts off with a bang -- literally -- when the great-great-great grandfather of the film's narrator (Ralph Fiennes) is killed in an explosion at the distillery where he invented and made quite a bit of money from a special herbal tonic that supposedly cures all kinds of ills. It's the recipe for that tonic that gets passed down through the generations -- until someone forgets where its been hidden -- that ties the gargantuan reach of the film together.
And the generations do go shooting by, starting in the late-19th century, with Fiennes continually returning to play each generation's son. It's a bit strange, at first, to see him coming back as a different character every 45 minutes or so, but the trick eventually works quite well, only faltering somewhat in his last incarnation around 1950 because it's just too much of a stretch.
The plot first stays with the Sonnenschein family -- makers of the tonic that they call "Taste of Sunshine," sunshine being the English translation of the family name -- and focuses on the three siblings: Ignatz (Fiennes), Gustave (James Frain) and Valerie (Jennifer Ehle). The first of another of the film's central motifs, that of forbidden love, is introduced here when Ignatz and Valerie (she's actually a cousin who has been brought into the fold) have a long-gestating romantic fling and eventually marry. The theme continues through later generations, although none of the other pairings involve blood relatives; instead, they're adulterous affairs.
But that's only one of many areas the plotlines crisscross. The film also takes in family problems, politics, nationalism and racism. It's when racism is in the spotlight, specifically anti-Semitism, that the film speaks most strongly. Although the cruel and brutal forms of it are saved for the Nazis, the more subtle forms are just as uncomfortable to watch.
It's a hint of anti-Semitism that gets certain members of the family to change their name from the obviously Jewish-sounding Sonnenschein to the more Hungarian-sounding Sors. It's the same practice of hatred, now less subtle, that gets one member of the family to convert to Catholicism. Aside from a Nazi torture scene, made all the more realistic by the archival footage of Jews being forced from their homes, one of the most chilling moments is when the Sonnenschein-Sors family is gathered around their living room radio listening to the new "rules" for Jews that are being broadcast.
In the midst of all of this, there are some light moments, some laughter and love that exists in the film's relationships and in families. There are also some very exciting scenes of competitive fencing, some of it taking place at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
But bad times always seem to be around the corner for these unlucky folks. As history tells it, their Hungarian government followed close in the footsteps of Hitler, and by the time most of the characters we've been introduced to realize that they should have left the country long ago, it's too late.
Fiennes does a remarkable job of playing very different characters who happen to have the same physical look. William Hurt presents one of his stronger, unfortunately very small, parts in recent years as a member of the communist police force. But one of the shining touches of the film is the casting of Rosemary Harris as Valerie in her later years. Harris is the real-life mother of Jennifer Ehle.
Although there's a bright ray of hope at the end of this mostly downbeat but very watchable film, it really is a chore to sit through anything this long without a short intermission. Anyone wanting to experience a similar -- and much lighter -- one that's multi-generational and tells a history of the 20th century as well as the motion picture industry, should rent out And Now My Love, a 1973 film by Claude Lelouch. It's not only better, it's also about an hour shorter.