We have met to discuss Fiennes' latest screen role, in which he plays three members of the Sonnenschein family in Istvan Szabo's "Sunshine," the epic tale of Hungarian Jews who struggle with identity and assimilation through the political upheaval and religious persecution of 20th century Europe.
Szabo is best-known for his powerful film "Mephisto," the first in a trilogy (with "Colonel Redl" and "Hanussen," which he made in German in the '80s). In the early '90s, he began his foray into English-language films.
Szabo's first film in eight years began when he started to write a draft of the highly personal "Sunshine" in Hungarian. "From the beginning I was sure that I needed one great actor with the face to represent three generations of this family," says Szabo in his accented English, by phone from home in his native Budapest, where "Sunshine" was filmed.
For the first hour of "Sunshine," Fiennes is Ignatz, a judge with a tight rein on his emotions who changes his name from Sonnenschein (Hungarian for "sunshine") to Sors ("destiny") in order to get promoted to a higher bench. As Adam, he is a cocksure Olympic fencing champion who converts to Catholicism to make the team. And as Ivan, he grapples with shame and revenge after standing by while his father is murdered by Nazis. "He has to move differently and speak differently, not just to show himself," Szabo says. "A great personality, it's not enough."
The original script was 400 pages. It has since been translated into English and cut by more than half to make the three-hour film.
"I couldn't believe that we were ever going to make the screenplay I first read," Fiennes recalls. "But it always was a long film. I loved the humanity of the story. There were no heroes. It was a very compassionate look at the lives of three men and their families against a very particular historical background. It didn't judge these men. It wasn't preaching at the audience. It was simply telling a story, saying, 'Look, this is what this world at this time has done or required or made these people feel. And how do you feel about that?' "
Fiennes says Szabo's clarity kept him from losing track of the characters, even on the rare occasion when the production schedule had him playing all three on the same day. Szabo helped him to understand the complex, long-standing love that would prevent a wife from hating her husband even after he raped her; to see that it was curiosity, not venom, that fueled a man's chance tram encounter with a former lover who betrayed him years before.
"He would always deviate me from the simplistic choice or approach," Fiennes explains. "To work with someone like that is fantastic, someone who's determined that never is there some simple black-and-white choice."
Szabo speaks about Fiennes with an equal reverence. "He's enormously prepared and has fantastic discipline," he says, adding that Fiennes was exacting down to fine points such as how he should hold a fencing prop when his character discovered he was left-handed. "He understands every detail of his work, and he is so deeply dedicated that if you feel that you are not so dedicated for a moment you shame yourself. Nobody allowed himself not to do something 100% in front of Ralph Fiennes."
"It was such fun," says Rosemary Harris, the actress who plays the older Valerie, Adam's mother and Ivan's grandmother. (Harris' daughter, Jennifer Ehle, is the younger Valerie.) "I found him so accessible. We giggled a lot. He looks serious and intense, but if you really look at his face, there's a twinkle near the surface. I don't think I've ever had as much fun working with anyone."
Valerie is the Sonnenschein matriarch, the wise, poetic, self-possessed figure at the center of all the madness.
"She's the heart of the film," Fiennes says. "But the thing that I respond to is, like, it's all these men getting lost and screwed up by wanting to find a niche where they can be successful and supported by the status quo and they lose sight of just being in the present moment."
He cites a line near the end of the film when Valerie tells her grandson to note the small joys in life. "She's trying to say, you know, you're all up in your head about the woman you love--isn't it nice to just have a beer," he says, taking a sip from his prop. "I know that's quite simplistic, but we can all get so caught up in pushing ourselves, into what? I think it's a sort of a philosophy of living. To be with Istvan is fantastic, because he'll look at someone and say, isn't it wonderful today the way she is with this nice blush on her cheek--he'll notice something about someone or about a moment. For me the film is about trying to champion the poetic sensibility in everyone, the possibility of it. In many ways that's not very fashionable; people sort of bridle a bit at the idea."
Not cynical enough?
"No, it doesn't have a vein of cynicism through it," he says.
"Sunshine" opened in Europe last fall to respectful but lackluster reviews. The Observer of London said, "Because of the romantic aura, the marvelous images of Szabo's regular cinematographer, Lajos Koltai, the seductive score by Maurice Jarre and a succession of attractive performances, the picture holds one's attention for three hours. But it's thinner, more contrived and far less compelling than his oblique, complex trilogy." Variety wrote: "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."
Nevertheless, the Canadian-Hungarian-German-Austrian co-production was nominated for 14 Genie Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars.
"It's a complicated and difficult film and not so easy to find an audience able to share this long excursion," Szabo concedes. But he has been heartened that people who have seen it have found what he calls "the real message of the film, which is what happens when you lose your identity."
It is clear that the film was a meaningful experience for Fiennes, who says he came away from it "very cynical about politics, politicians, nationalism of any kind. Things that probably latently I thought anyway, but working on the film and talking to Istvan crystallized my feelings about."
In conversation, Fiennes often refers back to "Onegin," an experience that made him painfully sensitive to the need for publicity and the challenges of sticking to your instincts in today's film culture.
"I felt on 'Onegin' that people would want changes that were about making the whole thing more lovable," he says. "And about stroking people and making them feel moved. People are terrified of alienating an audience. I get uncomfortable when I think, what is the audience? I'm in the audience. I sat through 'The Thin Red Line' loving it, and around me there were people leaving. And that is an audience."
Fiennes empathizes with Szabo's insistence on staying true to the story he wanted to tell. At the end of "Sunshine," Ivan reads from a letter his grandfather wrote, a kind of Sonnenschein manifesto of lessons for living. "It's a statement, I think, of Istvan's value system," Fiennes says. "Not everything's perfect, religion is not perfect, but don't put all your concentration on riches and success. I know for some people that is simplistic. Actually I think some people are embarrassed by the truth, the common sense that's contained in some of that. But when I read it, I have to say, that letter holds a lot of things that I believe myself completely."
Like "We are afraid of seeing clearly . . ."
"Yeah, 'and of being seen clearly,' " he finishes. "It's like being honest about who you are, I think. And it takes courage. I'm not saying that I or anyone else is successful at it."
This is how he does and does not talk about himself: through the prism of ideas, the emotional landscape of a character, the metaphors of someone else's life.
In the final scene of "Sunshine," Ivan is the last Sonnenschein left standing, alone to reclaim his identity.
"I think at the end of the day Ivan walks down that street with this clear sense not just that 'I am Sonnenschein' but that he's not going to be caught in corners by trying to please the communist general or anyone again," Fiennes says. "Even if he ends up digging a cabbage patch in the countryside, it doesn't matter--he will dig his cabbages and watch the sunset and be like Valerie--be true to who he is."
Meanwhile, here's a late Macbeth Review from the Epoch Times. Not altogether nice.