István Szabó’s Sunshine (1999)

I’m in two minds about István Szabó’s epic movie Sunshine. It tells the story of a family of Hungarian Jews, the Sonnenscheins (which means Sunshine in German), from the end of the 19th century until the end of the 20th. While I think it told me a lot about Hungary and the treatment of Jews in Hungary, I was far less thrilled about the length (3hrs) and the choice to have the three main characters, grandfather, father and son played by the very same actor, namely Ralph Fiennes. I would have found this artificial with any actor but given my dislike of Fiennes, it added annoyance. If you do not mind seeing the same actor in three different roles and are fond of Ralph Fiennes, you will probably like this movie a lot. I do not understand why Szabó chose to do it like this, why couldn’t there be three actors? I remember the Archers chose the same approach in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in which Deborah Kerr plays three different women but that worked much better.

The Sonnescheins are a modest family but then the patriarch invents a recipe for a tonic which makes them incredibly rich. As a direct result of their social ascendance, the two sons, Gustav and Ignaz, both study and become doctors, of medicine and law respectively. While Ignaz is loyal to the Emperor, Gustav feels more and more alienated by monarchy and becomes a communist. WWI changes not only Hungary but Europe as a whole. The biggest change in the lives of the Sonnenscheins’s however is that they choose to change their name from Sonnenschein to the more Hungarian sounding Sors. Long before WWII breaks out, the Jews are seen as a nuisance and it is very hard for them to integrate.

Ignaz’s and Valerie’s son Adam becomes the Hungarian fencing champion and wins at the Olympics in 1936. After having changed their name, the Sors also change their religion and the family converts to Catholicism. Still, this doesn’t help them, when WWII breaks out, the family first lives in the ghetto, some are killed, some escape and Adam and his son Ivan are sent to a concentration camp where Adam is tortured and killed. His son will never forgive himself that he just stood there and did nothing. After the war he joins the communist party. Anti-Zionist sentiments are spreading. The government changes often and depending on who is in charge, other groups are persecuted but what they all seem to have in common is that anti-Semitism reigns again.

When the end of the communist state has finally come, Ivan realizes that the only way to be really free, is to be true to yourself. He decides to change his name back to Sonnenschein and to be proud of his heritage, no matter what government and changes the future will bring.

While I wasn’t blown away by the movie and would have preferred if the main character had been played by three different actors instead of one, the movie isn’t bad at all. It had a lot of thought-provoking elements. There is the incident in the concentration camp in which three guards control 2000 prisoners. Ivan’s uncle later tells him that it is unforgivable that they didn’t do anything. This is a reproach one hears occasionally. People don’t understand why 2000 wouldn’t fight against 3 or 10 even if those were armed. The movie implies an answer which is interesting. It is obvious that if they had fought back the guards, some of the Jews would have been killed. The majority would have been saved but that would have needed the sacrifice of a few others.

Another interesting element is the fact that Hungarians sent Jews to the camps and not Germans. There were a lot of collaborators among the Hungarians. The movie underlines that the Hungarian society, whether it was during the monarchy or later under communism, was to a large part anti-semitic.

What I really liked is that the movie focusses on one family only and like that manages to give a much better feeling of the incredible changes which took place. To enhance authenticity Szabó included some original footage which in some cases was quite chilling. When Adam takes part in the Olympics of 1936, Szabó included original footage of the opening in which we see Hitler.

Because it’s a very long movie, it’s a very complex movie and I know I didn’t do it justice. There are for example some very troubled love stories which I didn’t mention in my summary but which are quite important. I liked the story between Valerie (Jennifer Ehle) and Ignaz but didn’t care for the love triangle including Adam, Hannah (Molly Parker) and Greta (Rachel Weisz).

I would recommend Sunshine if you like epic films and have an interest in the history of Hungary and the Holocaust from another perspective.

Clash of the Titans (2010)

I always end up watching movies in which Mads Mikkelsen is starring. So far I have never been disappointed. So far. Clash of the Titans has a weird cast but I think it says more about the cast than about the movie. While it’s a guilty pleasure with a war theme it’s not exactly a good movie with the exception of a few scenes. Despite all that, it’s fun. I liked the giant scorpions. They are really cool. Now briefly to the cast before I summarize the whole film.

Liam Neeson. There was once a time when he made good movies but recently he’s a major disappointment and since he is even in Battleship I start to have a feeling that whenever his name is on the cast list this could very well mean “avoid”. Ralph Fiennes. Yes, Ralph Fiennes. What the heck is he doing in this movie? Neeson and Fiennes both play powerful gods, while Fiennes plays the role of the bad guy – Hades, Neeson plays the role of the good one – Zeus. Both sport odd haircuts and halos that make them look like drag queen putti. Apart from these two the other actors mostly do a decent job  - or at least one that makes the movie watchable. I haven’t given up hope on Mikkelsen – he is even good in this one – but I’d advise him not to accept too many roles like this.

Perseus (Sam Worthington), a demi-god, son of Zeus is dragged into a battle between the Gods and the mortals. Hades, God of the underworld and master of the Kraken, demands the sacrifice of Princess Andromeda, the daughter of King Cepheus of Argos who won against the gods. If Andromeda isn’t sacrificed, Hades will unleash the Kraken. King Cepheus asks Perseus, the only human capable of fighting against gods due to his half-god nature, to find a way to defeat the Kraken. Perseus accepts because Hades has killed his step family and he wants revenge. The only way to win against the Kraken is by defeating the Medusa and cutting off her head.

Many people have been offended by the liberties the movie took with Greek mythology. I didn’t expect it to render the myth of Perseus and the Medusa, I thought it would be an action movie with a Greek mythology flavour. And that’s exactly what it is. Nothing more and nothing less. If you look for two hours of entertainment and haven’t seen the first one, try it. It’s quite fun.  Did I mention the scorpions? I really liked them.

Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996)

Rarely did a movie deserve the Academy Awards as much as The English Patient. It is one of the most beautiful war romances that I have ever seen. Or, to be accurate, two of the most beautiful romances as the movie tells two parallel stories. Based on Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful eponymous novel, The English Patient combines everything that an accomplished movie needs. Beautiful pictures, a touching story, an intriguing plotline, wonderful music, great characters  and outstanding actors. This is one of the movies that I have watched at least three times and every time I discovered another layer. It is surprisingly rich and, I would argue, flawless.

They call him “The English Patient” (Ralph Fiennes), the mysterious man, they rescued from a shot down airplane in the desert during WWII. He is heavily burned, will probably not survive. They bring him to Italy and a young nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche), volunteers to stay back and take care of him. She moves with him into an abandoned villa. He doesn’t know his identity but Hana finds a notebook and with its help the memory returns slowly and the story unfolds in flashbacks.

They are not alone for long, Kip (Naveen Andrews), a young Sikh and the thief David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) join her. Kip is part of a bomb disposal unit and the growing love between Hana and him is the second love story in this movie. It is beautiful but by far less tragic than that between the English patient and his lover. Caravaggio adds even another story line to the already rich plot. He is someone who thinks he knows who the badly burned man is. In fact he is sure that the patient is someone who wronged him once.

The flashbacks show us the mysterious patient, the Hungarian Count Almásy, 1930 in the Sahara desert. He is a mapmaker of the Royal Geographical Society. At the beginning of WWII he is still in the Sahara where he meets the British agent Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) and his beautiful wife Catherine  (Kristin Scott Thomas). Despite their fighting the attraction, they fall in love. They have an affair that ends abruptly when Catherine breaks it off. They meet again later and the following events make this probably one of the most tragic movie romances of all time.

The figure of Count Almásy is actually based on a real person, only his story was a different one.

The nurse Hana is certainly one of the most appealing nurses in any war movie. The gentleness and devotion with which she takes care of the dying man is touching. I am sure that there were many nurses like her in different wars and they deserve an homage.  I have a great deal of admiration for these courageous, disinterested women.

The intensity of the interwoven stories, the mysteries, the wonderful settings (the desert, Italy during the war, the Italian villa), the gripping part of the bomb defusing, all this together make this an absolute must-see.  Last but not least I’d like to mention the beautiful score by Gabriel Yared (you can listen to it here).