Multigenerational sagas are more comfortably the provenance of TV miniseries than of crammed feature films. But in Sunshine, the distinguished Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo (”Mephisto”) distills complex issues of identity into three hours of dense 20th-century family drama that, while inevitably oversimplified, is never less than engrossing.
Three generations of the Jewish Hungarian Sonnenschein family – the name means sunshine – rise and fall through the rise and fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Nazism, and communism. It is Szabo’s most elegant touch, though, to cast one mournful-faced actor, Ralph Fiennes, as a Sonnenschein son of each era, weighing forfeitures (of family name, of religion) against personal and professional gains.
The classy cast includes James Frain, Rachel Weisz, and William Hurt. And none is classier than recent Tony Award winner Jennifer Ehle as free thinking Valerie Sonnenschein, the story’s bright center. Another fine detail: When Valerie ages, she’s played by the luminous Ehle’s own glowing mother, Rosemary Harris.