Director and co-writer István Szabó approaches this film with the concept of covering several generations in linear order, which is daringly unique, but daring nonetheless, in that it is a tremendously dangerous method that, ever so unfortunately, botches, thus making a mess of a film, and it doesn't help that the film's story structure concept is where the originality pretty much ends. The story structure's theme is fairly inventive, but the actual story itself has been done, and in an extremely similar structural fashion, thus leaving the film to all too often collapse into story structure and storytelling conventions, complete with cliches abound amidst story progression that we're all too used to seeing laid out, though typically with a little less hurrying. The film opens up dashing through immediate development in a messy fashion that all but expels your investment for a moment, then proceeds to slow down a bit, though not enough, hurrying through plot point after plot point and slam-banging it all together with little delicacy, while leaving many potential story aspects, subplots and conflicts to come and go and leave the film's intrigue tainted. This film outdoes "Giant", as far as story hurrying is concerned, as it not only gives the audience limited time to dwell upon the primary story, but nearly no time to dwell upon conflicts and other intriguing story aspects that could have given this film more texture, thus holding back the film's bite quite a bit, and that's bad enough with any film of this type, yet what needs to be said is that this film, with all of its hurrying, is still "three hours long", and makes up for much of the time lost with repetition and too much excess material, much of which just ends up hurried out of the door anyway. The biggest missteps in the hurried story structure come in at each hour mark, when a sudden drastic shift in story focus - which present a different main character and even an almost entirely different primary story - occurs and finds itself slam-banged in with embarassing messiness that throws the film's momentum way off, and while the film's steam doesn't dissipate at tremendously uneven moments, momentum never comes back as strong as it was, due to all of the hurrying, repetition and other uneven spots, and the momentum was never really all that strong to begin with, due to all of the hurrying, repetition and other uneven spots. The film is such a mess, and I can go on all day describing the places in which it slips up with its worthy intentions, yet when it comes down to it, with all of the hurrying, repetition, bloating, unevenness and restraints in bits, the film, somewhat, transcends underwhelmingness. Don't get me wrong, this film makes it past merely decent by the hair of its nose, but makes it nonetheless, for although it is so messy, the film's flaws, while immense, don't quite deliver a deep enough impression to drown out the many things that this film does get right, and just right enough for the final product to sustain your investment more often than not.
The production values of the film are nothing short of remarkable, reconstructing the late 19th century and most of the 20th century with impressive authenticity and dynamicity that showcases gradual changes in the era in a believable yet dazzling fashion that is both enjoyably fascinating to watch and breathes life into this world, so much so that it's hard to find yourself entirely disengaged, no matter how much the film's story takes blows from faulty plotting. The film's production values don't make a tremendous difference in the overall quality of the final product, yet they do leave more of an impression than you would think, giving the film a kind of livliness that catches your attention, though not as much as an aspect whose messy handling makes this film as flawed as it is, but general being helps in making this film as ultimately good as it is: the story. Now, the structure and telling of this story, as I've said time and again, is an absolute mess, but the subject matter itself, is immensely intriguing, being familiar and sometimes redundant, but nevertheless strong and mostly dynamic, with depth and themes so strong, conceptually, that it's hard to fall out of this film, no matter how messy the execution of such a worthy story is, and much of that is due to, well, what writers István Szabó and Israel Horovitz and Szabó's direction do get right, and very right indeed. The screenplay is structured ever so messily, with exposition taking quite the blow, yet what exposition there is really does strike deep into the story and characters, fleshing them out just enough to earn your investment, which goes further intensified by moments in Szabó's direction that are dramatically inspired enough to carry through to the rest of the film. The film is a mess of restrained oomph and sloppy storytelling, yet on the whole, this film stands as a bit of a testament to how directing and storytelling don't always have to go hand-in-hand, because what Szabó lacks in storytelling comfort, he all but makes up for in atmospheric comfort, thus elevating this film, well, hardly past underwhelming. No, ladies and gentlemen, what gives the final product that extra push is an aspect that never ceases to impress and never ceases to carry this film through thick and thin: the acting, which, in all fairness, isn't graced with ceaseless material, yet still just enough for our performers to have more than a few golden moments amidst consistent gripping charisma in which they shine, so much so that they define this film and make up for most every false move, with leading man Ralph Fiennes especially stepping up in his portraying, not one, but three characters, all of whom are directly related, yet remain distinct, something that Fiennes conveys effortlessly by transforming into each one of his characters ever so profoundly, while keeping consistent with charisma, sweeping emotional range and the capturing of the depths of the characters into whom he transforms, whether it be Ignatz Sonnenschein - an ambitious man looking for success and satisfaction in both himself and his loved ones -, Adam Sors - a strong-willed and good-hearted man who finds his good intentions and spirit challenged to no end -, or Ivan Sors - an also firm and strong, yet vulnerable man making a steady and bumpy return to reality after undergoing crushing trauma that also left his worthy intentions tainted by immense disdain and a lust for closure by any means necessary -, thus making Fiennes a leading force to be reckoned with who carries the film, but not without the help of the many other talents found within this cast, all of whom make his or her charm all the sharper with sparkling chemistry. Acting material is often underwritten, thus leaving many performances to come off not as phenomenal as I'm making them sound, so you'd think that the acting wouldn't be enough for this film to transcend its many missteps, but really, I exaggerate not when I say that these performers - restrained though, they may be - really do carry this film a long way, as the film is often slow, yet never dull, for the charisma within the cast is intense enough to create consistent entertainment value, and the film's substance is, as I've said time again, tainted to no end by such immensely messy storytelling, yet does not ring false, not just because the story is so worthy or because director István Szabó has his fair share of inspired moments, but because the performances grace the film with such piercing depth and spirit that keeps the film going through and through, with moments in which it really cuts deep, thus making the film, if nothing else, an acting piece that succeeds just enough for the sprawling mess of a final product, as a whole, to transcend total underwhelmingness by a hair, yet transcend total underwhelmingness nevertheless.
Overall, the film's concept of tackling several generations in linear order is brilliantly unique, but botches in execution, not just because much of the uniqueness is diluted by endless story conventions and cliches, but because the film finds itself hurrying rapidly along through its points, abandoning subplots and potentially strong story aspects, partially for the sake of repetition and excess material, yet just ends up slipping up when it finally reaches its major story switches, which are jarring and convolute the film's focus, thus restraining the film's impact further and leaving the final product to run the risk of collapsing into total underwhiningness, something that amazingly never comes, for although the film is a hopeless mess, it goes supported by attractively well-done production values, elevated by strong moments in execution of the very strong story and ultimately secured as good by a myriad of colorful, spirited and winning performances, the strongest of which being by Ralph Fiennes, whose charismatic, soulful and seamless transformation into three distinct main characters sparks immense livliness that, when married with the massive collection of other film-carrying performances, helps the most in making "Sunshine" a thoroughly entertaining, often resonant and ultimately worthwhile film, regardless of ceaseless storytelling faults.
3/5 - Good
Another interesting feature presented in the film is the generational transition that occurred in the new industrialist families of Central Europe in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 1900s. The patriarch of the family and the founder of its fortune would sometimes reach his position from the lowest of social strata. Despite his wealth, he is never accepted by the established upper class as one of their own, always remains seen as a nouveau riche parvenu. His children, while continuing the family business, would become patrons of the arts and ingratiate themselves with the often impoverished aristocracy. Their children in turn would completely abandon the world of money-making, which they would often consider not fit for gentlemen to pursue, and become full time artists or civil servants.
The story presented in the movie is a variation on the above model, although the Sonnenschein/Sors family fortunes are also strongly linked to the changes of regime that occurred in Hungary. The protagonists are never fully accepted by the elites not only because they are parvenus, but also because for the regimes in which they exist (especially after the fall of the monarchy) a highly-positioned Jew is an issue. While Habsburg monarchy might explain it by tradition, the right-wing nation state by blood, and the Communist republic by the associations with the non-Communist Jewish diaspora, the outcome is the same- and die-hard loyalty does not help. The movie portrays quite accurately the vicious paradox in which Central European Jews existed- while they were expected to assimilate, their attempts to participate fully in the society in which they lived were seen as, pitiful, dishonest and sometimes even dangerous. While this was less acute in the Austro-Hungarian period, even there the most loyal Kaisertreuers would still be judged by appearances such as a not enough Magyar name.
What the movie is particularly successful in doing is showing the absurdity of pigeon-holing Jews as ruthless money-makers or natural communists (in itself a contradictory stereotype). It shows that, like the rest of the society, they often stumbled into the roles they performed by accident of history. And so, the three generations of the Sonnenschein/Sors become heroes of their regimes- Ignatz is decorated by the Kaiser, his son Adam is awarded a golden medal under the Nazi symbols, and his grandson Ivan gains his distinctions from the Communists on Stalinâ(TM)s birthday. There is nothing premeditated about their choice of life paths or ideology, they are rather pushed into them.
The movie is at its heart a sweeping indictment of the subsequent stiff-necked ideologies that preyed on the confused and war-stricken societies of the region. Interestingly, while indicting imperialist monarchy, ethno-nationalism, and totalitarian communism as siblings bringing about in the end the same morally corrupt outcome, SzabĂł does not condemn religion in the same way. In fact, in one of the closing monologues one of the protagonists presents it as â~â(TM)a well-built boat that can stay balanced and carry you to the other shoreâ(TM)â(TM). Although he probably intends not being blinded by the currently dominating order to the extent that one abandons his identity in order to conform with it (as the Sonnenscheins did by becoming the Sorses), this strikes as a curiously false note in a movie that seems to be aimed against any blind ideological commitment. Nonetheless, the film remains an outstandingly comprehensive look at the times of deepest moral crisis in the heart of the Crisis Zone.
My favorite aspect was that the film managed to catch Hungary at it's golden age and how it changed after WWI, II, and while under Communism. It gave me an appreciation for how things became what they are today. In particular the main coffee shop that the family would go to showed how fashion and taste changed over time. It made me nostalgic and I wished to have been able to experience it at the peak of it's glory. I plan on visiting the family house in Budapest the next time I am there.
There were oddities however, with the almost obsession with the various love affairs. I felt that this did not help the story along, in fact it distracted from it. I wonder how common place these odd relationships were at the time.
The symbolism and themes that flowed through the movie were profound. Their losing their identities in compromising for prestige seemed like a good move, then only to have it taken away despite their change was powerful and even humbling. Then to come back to one's identity to gain true freedom was touching. Great acting made the experience all the more poignant.