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16 December 2005

Sunshine (1999)

Ralph Fiennes (Ignatz, Adam and Ivan Sors), Rosemary Harris (old Valerie Sors), Jennifer Ehle (young Valerie Sors), Rachel Weisz (Greta)

Directed by István Szabó (Being Julia)

From IMDB: "Follows the Jewish Sonnenschein family living in Hungary through three generations. 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."

Question: how drastically does facial hair affect feelings of attraction I have toward any particular individual? Barring Johnny Depp, who sports a goatee as easily as he does a top hat, a pirate's costume, or scissors, the answer is radically. Perhaps because my father has a moustache, I simply cannot find whiskers attractive. On Ralph Fiennes, especially, the effect was dramatic. I spent the entire first two hours (of three) of this movie wondering if I no longer find him appealing, which would be a shame because he was so thoroughly swoon-worthy in The English Patient (not so much, obviously, in Schindler's's List). Ok, so his demeanor and acting talents play a tremendous part in this intangible equation, but the hair issue cannot be ignored. Once he shaved, I felt those happy feelings of an endearing homecoming flood back. Those eyes! He has the best stare since Sting. Or Johnny Depp.

With that highly important consideration out of the way, I can continue. This ambitious but flawed film made a fantastic statement about how human beings can be asked to compromise within a corrupt, ruthless world and how intractable people can suffer for their refusal to adapt and change. It also examined the echoes that flow through generations as each son stumbles and rushes to survive his father's mistakes. Fiennes was faced with the challenging task of playing three men from the same family while imparting a sense of individuality and distinct presence - aside from the costumes and hair. To offer anything less than a successful portrayal of three separate conscious- nesses would have been Ralph just playing dress-up.

Grandaddy Ignatz was a noble, ethical man, but his ethics blinded him to the faults within Emperor Franz- Joseph I's administration. He took pride in his staunch adherence to the law, even when the law - and the government itself - could have done with significant upheavals. He suffered for his principles, losing his health, his position (at the end of WWI he became subject to the authority of Hungary's new Communist government), and his place as the pride of his family. However, to earn his position as a judge, he did make the concession to change his name from Sonnenschein (traditionally Jewish, meaning "sunshine") to Sors (Hungarian, pronounced "shorsh").

Daddy Adam had to change much more to become ac- cepted as a champion fencer. He converted to Catholicism, entirely renouncing his Jewish heritage in favor of his new identity as a fencer - a Hungarian champion and hero. He found this identity so compelling and essential that he failed to see the dangers of Nazi anti-Semitism and the approaching storm of the Holocaust.

Ivan, the third of this Sors family trio, became an officer in the aftermath of WWII, as the new Hungarian govern- ment praised Communism and waged a fierce war against partisans and fascists. However, several significant betrayals revealed something to Ivan that his father and grandfather had not seen: gray areas abound, people make compromises for countless reasons, and living without an understanding of this essential aspect of human nature can lead to heartbreak and disaster. Ivan also learned that a reliance on family, tradition, and heritage can lead people through such betrayals and compromises to a freer, more peaceful existence. Ignatz and Adam had tried, to varying degrees, the path of assimilation, but Ivan took a path that led him back to his roots as a Sonnenschein.

While most films offer a character arc that covers, at most, the length of one human life, Sunshine told the story of all three men as extensions of each other. The arc of their development progressed over the span of all three lives, with the familiar setting of Budapest as their backdrop. A hunting scene, a meeting in a cafe - these sets were used and reused to create a sense of déjà vu and the impression that our lives are not lived independently of the influences of previous generations.

Ah, so where was it unsuccessful? The relationships! The romantic pairings between Ralph and his leading ladies were forced and unbelievable. Ignatz was disturbed, but he would not have abused his wife. Adam was passionate, but he would not have betrayed his wife and brother. Ivan was idealistic and eager to love, but he was not stupid enough to fall for a top party official's wife. Everything was forced and hokey with a few ghastly, almost comic sex scenes thrown in, all of which thoroughly wasted Ralph's potential for magnetic obsession and sensual brooding.

William Hurt as Andor Knorr was viciously charismatic and woefully limited to a small part in Ivan's story. Rachel Weisz continues to pollute films, rampantly and unchecked. And the "made for family epics" pairing of Jennifer Ehle and her mother Rosemary Harris made me wonder when make-up artists got so damn good at their craft! Alas, it was a all a clever casting agent's trick.

Blogger Mircalla said...

"... these sets were used and reused to create a sense of déjà vu and the impression that our lives are not lived independently of the influences of previous generations."

This is so true. No matter how times change and how different we are from our parents and ancestors, but there are always some repeating patterns... Unfortunately most of the time we are unaware of it simply because the memory of our ancestors is not always passed from father to son.

You don't like Rachel Welsz?
I have never seen her playing, but I saw an interview with her yesterday night and I found her a very likeable person. I look forward to seeing her and Fiennes in the Constant Gardener (I noticed it is in your wish list, too

Blogger carrie_lofty said...

Nope, I've never liked Rachel Weisz in films, but she is really personable in interviews. Then again, I couldn't stand Julianne Moore for the longest time until she was in Boogie Nights. Now she's one of my favorite actresses. Same thing happened with Sandra Bullock when I saw her in While You Were Sleeping. I believe firmly in personal break-out roles, where an actor or actress - with the right character - strikes a personal chord with a viewer.

At the moment, I cannot tell if Weisz is talented, but the possibility remains. She is not, I think, in the league of horrible screen polluters like Heather Graham or Cameron Diaz when they try to do serious dramatic roles (both are really quite funny in comedies). Maybe I'm just waiting for her to have the right role to appeal to me.

The Constant Gardener might be it, although I learned that her part is rather small. I'm hoping to find it at a second-run theater over Christmas break so I can see it, but I think it'll be out on DVD soon here in the States. Weisz was in Enemy at the Gates with Ralph's brother Joseph, so I get the feeling that part of her career is being propelled by the Fiennes family. Hmm....

Blogger Mircalla said...

She is in Stealing Beauty and About a Boy, both of which I have seen but cannot recall her characters... Hmmm...


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