Monday, December 11, 2017

No sunshine

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2000)

It was director Nicholas Ray who reportedly said, “If it were all in the script, why make the movie?” Not many movies nowadays provide any particular reason to think back to that remark (today’s directors are mostly showmen, if they’re anything at all), but Istvan Szabo’s Sunshine is an unwelcome exception. Here’s a film that provides not one solitary moment of visual imagination, not one memorable flare of the director’s craft. The picture is not an ounce better than its script, and given that the writing appears little more inspired than that of the average corporate training video, that doesn’t give us much. And it’s three hours long. Sad to say, this monumental mediocrity is a Canadian co-production, nominated for several hundred Genie awards.


The film follows three generations of a Hungarian Jewish family, through the First and Second World Wars and the subsequent upheavals. Ralph Fiennes plays the most prominent male members of each generation. The family passes through various stages of upheaval and suffering, losing sight of its inherent strength and tradition before finally finding peace with its own history.

The story winds through some of the key events of our century (a family member dies in a concentration camp; another is a leading protestor against the Russian occupancy in 1956 Budapest), but makes little attempt to convey either an emotional or an intellectual sense of those events. There are a few flatly-staged crowd scenes, but the action consists mainly of conversations in rooms, with archival newsreel footage liberally interspersed. I can’t tell you how irritated I got at the film’s continual use of Fiennes’ voice-over to tell us what happened between one scene and the next (especially as the events he describes almost invariably sound more interesting than the stuff actually put on screen). This could theoretically have been an interesting artistic strategy, perhaps exploring the impotence of individual gestures against the crushing power of political and institutional change, but it certainly doesn’t function here as such. It’s more as if they set out to film a vast, sweeping novel, but with a shoestring budget that meant most of the good stuff had to be cannibalized or glossed over.

Lost investment

Unfortunately, I understand it’s not a low-budget film at all. A couple of months ago I cited Giuseppe Tornatore’s Legend of 1900 – the saga of a piano player who lives his whole life on an ocean liner – as the epitome of a certain kind of lavish, commercially doomed art film. Tornatore’s film, whatever its faults, seemed to me to follow its own muse. But Sunshine is as off-puttingly calculating as a Bond movie. It means to make us glow with its humanity, to make us gasp at its scope. It has the requisite amount of Euro-style nudity, scattered carefully through the film. It has the speeches, the recriminations, the tragic ironies. Surely the subject matter must have meant something to Hungarian director Szabo (best-known for his Oscar-winning Mephisto), but on this evidence he’s artistically decrepit, phoning it in.

Of course, it’s not as if one salvages nothing from the experience. The last third of the film is moderately successful in tracing the moral decay of the Communist takeover (an appearance by William Hurt, more nuanced than the rest of the cast put together, helps). The death of one of the Fiennes characters is chilling, as is the depiction of the family sitting around the radio, pouncing on every shard of hope, as the Jewish exclusionary laws are announced. But ultimately, there’s no compelling reason for the film to exist. It doesn’t have the artistic aspirations of, say, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (which came to my mind not least because the recreation of Prague ’68 in that film is so vastly superior to the equivalent set-pieces in this work); it has no commitment to revealing character, being entirely lacking in spontaneity; it’s not really interested in illustrating politics or social change (I often found myself, during the plodding exposition of escalating anti-Semitism, longing for Oliver Stone). And the poor shareholders of Alliance Atlantis won’t even have the consolation of knowing they squandered their money for the greater Canadian good – on a three-hour bio of Rene Levesque for instance, or of Peter Gzowski, or even Mike Duffy.

The Cider House Rules

By comparison, Lasse Hallstrom’s The Cider House Rules is a film of studiously limited ambition, yet nothing in Sunshine sends as much of a transgressive shiver down the spine, as Cider House’s unflinching embrace of what’s pejoratively termed “abortion on demand.” In this adaptation of John Irving’s book, Michael Caine (excellent) plays an overseer of a remote New England orphanage, fervently devoted both to his poignantly-portrayed changes (“Princes of Maine, Kings of New England”) and to his secondary abortion practice. Tobey Maguire (sweet, but a bit bland) is the orphanage-raised protégé who rejects the path Caine’s designated for him, and goes off to see the world.

The film is generally much like an afternoon siesta in a Maine meadow – pleasant enough as long as you don’t have too much else on your to do list. As it goes on, the intended theme seems to be about self-discovery through gentle myth-making, about tearing up the rules – but this is all rather less than persuasive from a film that takes so few chances itself. The oddly restrained climax certainly doesn’t hit home. But The Cider House Rules stands apart from mere travelogue if only because of its treatment of abortion, in which respect the filmmakers must consider themselves very lucky not to be attracting more adverse publicity than they are. Maybe, given its box-office failure, the habitual protestors have finally learned that disdain is the best weapon.

Any Given Sunday

Talking as I was of Oliver Stone, I also saw his new film Any Given Sunday, a pro-football epic that Stone puts across like a sequel to JFK; any given scene groans under the director’s hunger for complexity and expansiveness. But even if his subject-matter were as compelling as that of the earlier movie, his instincts certainly aren’t – the kinetic style often seems borderline ludicrous here, and works against any sort of dramatic differentiation. The main plotline, contrasting the weathered coach (Al Pacino, with a couple of good locker-room speeches) and the young hotshot, sputters along to a climax so unconvincing that you could accuse the film’s last twenty minutes of dissing the grander ambitions of its first two hours. A case perhaps for a conspiracy theorist, once he’s finished investigating how Sunshine got made.

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