Fame, prestige and a reputation for loyalty offer little protection from the ravages of prejudice and oppression. That's the lesson learned by three generations of Jewish Hungarians in director Istvan Szabo's "Sunshine," a sometimes choppy epic that nevertheless offers enough moving and shocking moments to compensate for the stretches that feel a bit overwrought.
The key to the film's success is Ralph Fiennes, who does a dazzling job of portraying three of the sons of the house of Sonnenschein: Ignatz, a judge who hopes to disguise his origins; Adam, Ignatz's son; and Ivan, Ignatz's grandson. The trio are bound together by a common misconception: All of them try playing by the rules of the ruling class, only to find the game is unwinnable.
Ambitious and reckless at the beginning of the 20th century, Ignatz defies his parents and marries his cousin Valerie (Jennifer Ehrle), an orphan who was raised as his sister. "We're already doomed to Hell," Valerie giggles as she slides into Ignatz's bed one evening. "We might as well enjoy it."
Presented with a promotion, Ignatz chooses to ignore the warnings of his father Emmanuel (David de Keyser), who tells him, "Our people must never climb too high, even if we're invited to." Moving upward requires Ignatz to modify his surname to the less ethnic-sounding Sors, and as a show of support Valerie and Ignatz's brother Gustave (James Frain) take the name of Sors as well. The three laugh and skip as they exit the courthouse, but they'll have little reason to be jolly in the future, as World War I begins and the Hungarian emperor falls.
Szabo, whose "Mephisto" and "Colonel Redl" were major art-house attractions in the 1980s, is least successful with this portion of the story. Too many scenes come across as contrived or melodramatic, particularly the confrontations, which too often end with pounding on the dinner table or the overturning of a bookcase.
As "Sunshine" moves into its second hour, the film becomes more assured and effective. Adam Sors becomes a champion fencer who participates in the 1936 Olympics, but in order to get there, he first has to convert to Catholicism. Even that's not enough to protect him and his loved ones from the Nazis, however, and in a gripping scene, the once-proud hero is stripped naked and hosed down with icy water by concentration camp guards, while his young son Ivan is forced to watch.
Ivan grows up to become a fervent Nazi hunter and a pro-Stalinist speechwriter in early 1950s Hungary, a country left in tatters by WWII. Although, like his father and grandfather, Ivan yearns to assimilate into the establishment, his passion for a married woman (Deborah Kara Unger) and his friendship with a co-worker (William Hurt) accused of being part of a "Zionist conspiracy" prevent him from succeeding. Looking back on all she's seen over the decades, Valerie (who has grown up to be played by Ehrle's real-life mother Rosemary Harris) boils down the Sonnenschein saga to its essentials: "Politics has made a mess of our lives."
Although "Sunshine" occasionally feels more like a condensed mini-series than a movie, it's rarely dull and the acting is first-class. Ehrle and Harris make Valerie's journey from youthful firebrand to wizened matriarch entirely believable. As people whose spirits were long ago crushed, Unger and Hurt show off the scars of conformity.
As he rings in 1900 surrounded by friends and family, idealistic Ignatz leads a toast. "I predict this will be a century of love, justice and tolerance," he proclaims. While much of "Sunshine" grimly reminds us that prophecy did not come to pass, Szabo's film also challenges us to confront the mistakes of our ancestors and to avoid making them again.