Thursday, May 04, 2006

"Fiennes, Ehle, Harris Play Across Generations in Sunshine"

This article is from
Three Tony Award winning Broadway stars -- Ralph Fiennes (Hamlet), Jennifer Ehle (The Real Thing) and Rosemary Harris (A Delicate Balance) -- play the leads in Istvan Szabo's $25 million epic film drama, Sunshine, opening Friday, June 9.

Running more than three hours, Sunshine spans four generations of a Jewish family and covers the entire 20th century that saw two world wars, the rise and fall of a monarchy, fascist dictatorships and the communist regime in Hungary.

Set primarily in Budapest, the film traces the partilineage of the Sonnenschein family through grandfather, father and son, all of whom are played by Ralph Fiennes. The first is Ignatz, a judge who changes his Jewish name to advance his career. The second is his son, Adam, who converts to Catholicism to win a spot on the fencing team and dies in the Holocaust. The grandson is Ivan, who joins the Communist secret police to avenge his father's death.

Mother-daughter actors Harris and Ehle both play Ignatz's wife Valerie. Originally called The Taste of Sunshine, the film is a huge saga about a Hungarian-Jewish clan locked in a camouflage battle with history. Along the way, the life of each man played by Fiennes is complicated by an illicit romance.

Directed and written by Szabo (Academy Award winner for Mephisto and Colonel Redl), the film's screenplay was co-written by American playwright Israel Horowitz.

"It's a wonderful, wonderful film that opened at the Toronto Film Festival," Harris told "My daughter Jennifer Ehle and I play the same role. She plays the first 40 years, and I play the next 40 years of the same part. Ralph Fiennes plays three parts. William Hurt is also in the film."

Harris and Ehle previously played across the generations in the 1992 British television drama The Chamomile Lawn.

"At the same time that Istvan was thinking about me for Valerie," Ehle told Newsday. "He asked Ralph who should be the older Valerie. And he's alleged to have said, 'What about Rosemary Harris?' And they hadn't known we were mother and daughter."

With music by Maurice Jarre, the stories in Sunshine parallel the experience of the Jewish middle-class in Central Europe from the decline and fall of the Habsburg Empire to the aftermath of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. It is both historical and artistic.

"I've always been selective of the films I take on," Harris said. "Film is the lazy way out of acting. It's not nearly as hard work as the stage. I also have a family. I have a daughter who I adore, and I never wanted to be just an actress. I wanted to be a mother first and an actress second. So I was always putting my family first. My husband, Johnny, is a writer. He was able to take a pad and pencil, and we would put Jennifer in our pockets and go off and do a project."

Likewise, Szabo has said in interviews that Sunshine centers on the family: "It started in my mind with how in the whole of Middle Europe, not just Hungary, people's private lives have been influenced by history and politics. I wanted to tell the story of one family and how their whole life is deeply affected by the various movements in Europe. All human beings seek out a sense of comfort in their lives and in the last 150 years we have faced enormous challenges and difficulties which threaten our safety and that can lead to losing ourselves. So I wrote this story, showing how these supposedly different regimes -- be they an Empire, a republic or a foreign dictatorship -- have put individuals under pressure.

"All regimes promise happiness," Szabo continued, "but dreadful things have happened in that name. Authority uses people. When it no longer needs them, it throws them away or destroys them. This enormous experience is only the experience of the 20th century. It is extraordinary that in one life, say that of my grandfather, a man could experience the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazi and the Communist Regime. Instead of showing one life through different ages, I thought it might be more profound to tell the story through three generations. I therefore created three characters - a grandfather, a father and a son - all at similar ages. I always knew that I wanted one actor to play the three parts, of Ignatz, Adam and Ivan and so I asked Ralph Fiennes to create these for me."

Fiennes said he wanted to work with Szabo because he is a fan of Mephisto and Colonel Redl: "The script works on so many levels. Not only is it a story of personal relationships across three generations, but it is set against a very specific historical and social background of Hungary from the turn of the century through until the 1960's. It is deeply humane without being sentimental. It is as rich as any great novel and it is all from Istvan Szabo who is an extraordinary human being."

In the press packet, Fiennes describes Ignatz as "a lawyer who wants to be accepted as a member of the establishment of Hungary. He is a middle class Jew who wants to be assimilated successfully; he wants to feel the safety of the Establishment and the legal system. The infrastructure of the Empire is what gives him his raison-d'etre, to the point of neglecting the woman he loves.

By contrast, his son Adam is an Olympic athlete. "He lives through his body, he's a championship top athletic fencer and his motivation is to succeed as an athlete," Fiennes said. "He too wants to be assimilated, but he's a physical man and has the linear vision of any sportsman. He is blind to social change, to the rise of Fascism, so in one sense he is quite limited. But in another he is the most romantic because he is a bit of a swashbuckler."

Ivan, Adam's son and Igantz's grandson, may be the most complex. "Ivan is the most crippled and wounded psychologically by seeing his father murdered in a concentration camp," Fiennes said. "He's the most conflicted; he has literally no roots. He comes out of the war with a kind of Messianic determination to fight for Communism and take revenge on the Fascists. It's only when he sees the corruption of the Communist Regime and recognizes it as the same mindless corruption as Totalitarianism that he is able to make a change. He does it in the most fundamental way, by changing back to his family name."

Sunshine also stars Rachel Weisz (The Mummy, Chain Reaction), Deborah Kara Unger (The Hurricane, Crash), Molly Parker (Kissed, The Five Senses), James Frain (Elizabeth, Hilary & Jackie) and Academy Award winner William Hurt (Children of a Lesser God, Broadcast News).

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