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If you've got the time, "Sunshine's" talented actors and epic story warrant a look.

More Than Fiennes

If the thought of a three-hour movie doesn't send you into commitment-withdrawal, than you should give Hungarian auteur Istvan Szabo's "Sunshine" a try. The sprawling, English-language epic spans three generations of the Sonnenschein family, a close-knit clan of Hungarian Jews who live and struggle through two world wars and countless changes of government and personal fortune.

Unlike other notoriously lengthy movies - Kevin Costner's "The Postman," for instance — Szabo's "Sunshine" wears its length lightly. In fact, "Sunshine" might have been better had it been longer. Yes, longer! The story, the characters and the times are compelling enough to have made a great historical miniseries, except its sex, nudity and one maddeningly horrific scene of torture-murder would most likely scare off the networks.

As it stands, the great flaw in "Sunshine" stems from a directorial choice. Knowing his time constraints, Szabo favors story over character, history over emotion. That is certainly his right, but sitting in the audience, I found myself wishing Szabo would linger long enough with any single character for a strong emotional connection to be established. His excellent international cast does what it can to make us care — and they mostly succeed — but the actors remain secondary to Szabo's sprawling story. This focus is something of a departure for the Oscar-winning Szabo whose other films ("Mephisto," "Colonel Redl") were intimate portraits of war victims, all fueled by powerful performances from Klaus Maria Brandauer.

Szabo's decision to cast Ralph Fiennes in a triple role is a double-edged sword. Fiennes certainly has those leading-man looks, but there's something innately cold or bloodless about his acting persona. His demanding performance earns our respect, our anger and our undivided attention, just not our hearts.

Fiennes plays Ignatz Sonnenschein, his son Adam and grandson Ivan. Sadly, Fiennes and Szabo have elected to link the three with an increasingly predictable mixture of conformist dullness and occasional outbursts of sexual passion.

Only Fiennes' Adam stands out in our memory because Szabo allows us to see him as a man, rather than as a historical footnote. Displaying a conformist expediency similar to his father, Adam goes one step further.

While Ignatz changes his name to a more Hungarian-sounding Shos in order to move up in the Emperor's judicial system, Adam converts to Catholicism so he can pursue his life's passion — fencing. His move seems justified when he goes on to become the Olympic fencing champion at the 1936 Berlin games. Adam also figures prominently in the movie's most horrific scene.

The most effective piece of casting involves Tony-winner Jennifer Ehle ("The Real Thing" and TV's astounding "Pride & Prejudice" miniseries) and her own mother, veteran stage actress Rosemary Harris. The two play the younger and older versions of Ignatz's headstrong cousin Valerie Sonnenschein, who marries him and lives to regret it. Valerie not only survives Ignatz but also World War I, the Nazi death camps and postwar communist repression. Gradually, she becomes the movie's throughline. Although "Sunshine" is narrated by Fiennes' Ivan, Harris and Ehle are so much more charismatic that it might have made more of an emotional impact to have Valerie tell the Sonnenschein story.

Although it lacks the resonance of Szabo's other films, "Sunshine" is a valiant effort. Often as elegantly acted as it is beautifully mounted, "Sunshine" has enough moments of insight, indignation and intelligence to warrant its three-hour commitment.

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