Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ralph Fiennes, Rosemary Harris, Rachel Weisz, Jennifer Ehle, Deborah Kara Unger, Molly Parker, James Frain, David de Keyser, John Neville, Miriam Margolyes, Rüdiger Vogler, Mark Strong, William Hurt
Written by: Istvan Szabo, Israel Horovitz
Directed by: Istvan Szabo
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality, and for violence, language and nudity
Running Time: 181
Date: 09/13/1999

Sunshine (2000)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Generation Gap

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Will it sound too weird if I complain that, at three hours, the new movie Sunshine is too short?

Starring Ralph Fiennes, Sunshine tells the story of three generations of Hungarians. Fiennes plays each of the three leading men, and he's spectacular. In the first episode, he's studying to be a lawyer and falls in love with his cousin (Jennifer Ehle). He becomes a judge and tries not to get involved with politics, while his brother becomes an activist. The next Fiennes is a world fencing champion, whose career is cut short when the Nazis invade Hungary and he dies at their hands, while his young son watches. That son grows up to be the next Fiennes who -- this time -- becomes active in trying to put the country right again. And, for a little twist, throughout this whole 100-year period, a secret family recipe for a health tonic remains elusively hidden in the family's house.

It makes me sad to report that this most ambitious movie, written and directed by Istvan Szabo -- best known in this country for his Oscar-winner Mephisto (1981), and its follow-ups Colonel Redl (1985), Hanussen (1988), and Meeting Venus (1991) with Glenn Close -- doesn't work. Sunshine never gets more than an inch below the surface of the characters. Szabo keeps his stories smushed into compact little episodes, each designed to do little more than move everything forward. When we're dealing with people's lives it's nice to have a little breathing room, a little space and time to linger over an idea or an event. In a sense, Sunshine is like most of the other current summer movies in that it slams itself all over you without needing to think or rest.

I couldn't help comparing Sunshine to Francis Ford Coppola's brilliant The Godfather Part II (1974), which told of two generations in three hours and twenty minutes. That movie jumped back and forth between the turn-of-the-century Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) and the 1950s Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), allowing time to be a factor. It stretched out scenes and let us spend precious minutes reading an actor's face or exploring an emotion, and we felt a relationship between the two characters. In Sunshine, despite Fiennes' performance, the connection is more superficial, relying instead on props like the mysterious tonic recipe. Indeed, Sunshine is so rapidly strung together, you may have a hard time remembering which Fiennes is which.

With exactly one hour devoted to each of the three lifetimes, Sunshine comes across as if it were made as a TV miniseries. If Sunshine were longer, I suspect that Szabo could have done some amazing things with it. As it is, many scenes all throughout the picture resonate with power, such as the swordfights and Fiennes' seduction of his cousin. A rich supporting cast, including Rosemary Harris (Ehle's mother, playing the older version of the cousin), Rachel Weisz, Deborah Kara Unger, Molly Parker, and William Hurt, shines and rounds out the stories. Yet, overall, Sunshine falls somewhere in the middle. It's just too rushed and shallow to be satisfying.

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