Personal epics tinged with universal themes of power, success and patriotism have been the hallmark of fervently Hungarian director Istvan Szabo throughout a career that includes the Oscar-winning “Mephisto,” “Colonel Redl” and “Hanussen.” And there’s no denying the care and emotion in every frame of “Sunshine,” the mammoth, long-nurtured saga of a Hungarian Jewish family over nearly a century and a half of tumultuous change. Yet despite the presence of usually critic-proof Ralph Fiennes in three distinct and dashing period roles, the tale’s geopolitical complexity and a nagging superficiality born of a wearying amount of narrative information — included at the expense of memorable character development — make this well-intentioned but never entirely engaging chronicle a tough mainstream sell.
Story is neatly and subtly divided into three acts, opening, with narration by Fiennes, just as late 18th century rural Jewish couple Aaron and Josefa Sonnenschein (German for “sunshine”) are killed in an explosion while distilling their herbal tonic. With the recipe sewn into the lining of his coat, sole surviving son Emmanuel makes his way to Budapest, where he marries Rose and parlays the brew into a successful business. In time they have two boys, straight-arrow Ignatz (Fiennes) and emotional firebrand Gustave (James Frain), completing the family with the adoption of cousin Valerie (Jennifer Ehle). While Ignatz is becoming a successful jurist in Vienna, his growing romantic involvement with Valerie angers Gustave and shocks Emmanuel and Rose (David de Keyser, Miriam Margolyes). To avoid growing anti-Semitic rumblings, siblings change their name to Sors (pronounced “shorsh,” Hungarian for “destiny”). The marriage of the two lovers produces sons Istvan (Mark Strong) and Adam (Fiennes again, in the first of two abrupt close-ups that effectively begin new chapters).
Taking up Catholicism to further his athletic career, the apolitical Adam marries fellow convert Hannah (Molly Parker) but is seduced by his brother’s wife, Greta (Rachel Weisz), who unsuccessfully pleads with him to flee the coming Nazi Holocaust. Adam and Hannah’s only son, Ivan, watches the horrible death of his father in a WWII labor camp, returning (as Fiennes again) to take revenge on “fascist bastards.”
He devotes himself to a career in Communist politics, working alongside Andor Knorr (William Hurt). An ill-advised affair with party wife Carola (Deborah Kara Unger) and subsequent prison term lead to a bittersweet epiphany at the family home in Budapest with an older Valerie (Rosemary Harris) and Gustave (John Neville), who have survived the turbulent postwar period to experience the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
Problems are evident early in tale, as much generational information is spoken, not shown. This is undoubtedly due to the pruning and shaping of Szabo’s original 600-page Hungarian-language script by himself and playwright Israel Horovitz; they’re clearly working hard to cover turn-of-the-century tranquility, two world wars and the intervening regimes that have shaped Hungarian politics and culture. Successful grace notes, such as the Rosebudish fate of the recipe, climactic pan-generational reading of a letter from Emmanuel and a talismanic pocket watch, are counterbalanced by the general rushed feel of the proceedings and occasional contemporary-sounding exchange (Adam: “How does it feel to be a Catholic?” Hannah: “I’m enjoying it.”).
In his significant time onscreen Fiennes limns a distinctive look and gait for each generation: a ramrod-straight demeanor for Ignatz (complete with Freudish beard and pince-nez), a clipped mustache and athlete’s swagger for Adam and the bespectacled intensity of the vengeful Ivan. Yet for all his physical fearlessness (two sequences include full frontal nudity, and some of the sex is rough), there are more sparks than fire, leaving an essential void and chill where the passion should be.
Balance of cast is good, if cumulatively uniform, while Harris as the older Valerie anchors latter section of pic and delivers the serene, wryly philosophical central message of finding joy amid life’s darkest travails. Supporting roster is fleshed out with capable Euro regulars, including Bill Paterson, Rudiger Vogler and Hanns Zischler.
Tech credits are sumptuous, with longtime Szabo lenser Lajos Koltai and principal crew making the most of extensive locations in and around Budapest, Vienna and Berlin.