A Family's Destiny 

* Sunshine (R)
Paramount Pictures

Istvan Szabo's rambling epic tells the story of the Hungarian Jewish family Sonnenschein (sunshine) and the blows they are dealt by the volatile political and military history of Europe's bloody 20th century. Three generations of Sonnenschein men strive to avoid cataclysm but, in the end, are swept up by anti-Semitism and the fickle winds of political movements that promise liberty but ultimately deliver oppression.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Sonnenscheins earn their wealth by bottling and peddling a famous tonic called "Sunshine." Patriarch Emmanuel zealously guards the formula and guides the family with traditional wisdom. His sons Ignatz (Ralph Fiennes) and Gustave grow up to forsake the family business for careers in law and medicine, and convince the family to change their names to the less Jewish-sounding Sors (fate, destiny). Both brothers are smitten with their beautiful cousin Valerie (Jennifer Ehle) who has been raised in their household as a sister, but Valerie chooses Ignatz and eventually they marry.

By the end of World War I, Ignatz' blind loyalty to the Austrian emperor turns him into a bitter, rigid patriot who cannot adapt to change while Valerie, a photographer who strives to capture beauty, is drawn to another more vital lover. Gustave, a dedicated Communist, flees to Paris.

From there, the story is passed on to Ignatz' son Adam, also played by Fiennes, a dashing student of the law who becomes Hungary's national champion fencer, and eventually to Fiennes' final incarnation as Ivan, Adam's son who is haunted by the memory of his father's death in a work camp and driven toward retribution. Throughout the story, Valerie, played at an older age by Rosemary Harris, maintains the heart of the Sonnenschein family.

The remarkable achievement of Sunshine is director Szabo's ability to keep the story moving forward and to keep it personal while presenting the spectacle of political movements and armies across the century. Fiennes is in perfect form, though his intense, arrogant screen presence can be a little hard to take. He is perfectly balanced by Ehle whose intelligent visage and warmth is comparable to a young Meryl Streep. Both are surrounded by a rich cast of supporting actors. In the third sequence, William Hurt shows up to play a Jewish policeman, an Auschwitz survivor, and turns in his best performance in many years.

Notable for its musical score, gorgeous cinematography, a lucid screenplay, ambitious plot and scope and strong performances, Sunshine succeeds as an epic of the cinema and stands out glowingly in this summer's otherwise mindless barrage of pulp and special effects.

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