Rated: R
Stars: Ralph Fiennes, William Hut, James Frain, Molly Parker, Jennifer Ehle

The idea of playing three starring roles in the same film must have been a very enticing concept for British actor Ralph Fiennes. However, for the audience that has to watch him in those three very similar roles, it is a far less appealing matter. In this three-hour epic, Fiennes portrays three generations of men from the Hungarian family known as Sonnenschein and each man has to face the political turmoil of the moment. As Jews, the Sonnenschein family takes on the Austro-Hungarian empire, Nazism, and Communism.

The film’s message rings clear – they’re all the same. Each movement victimizes its populace for the sake of its ideology, promising a better life in the process. Yet they come to power through intimidation, lies and deceit. And that’s just how they continue to rule.

At the end of the 19th century, the Sonnenscheins have lost their fame when the family tonic water distillery explodes. Eldest son Ignatz (Fiennes) makes his way up the political ladder in Budapest and becomes a powerful judge. Facing threats of anti-Semitism, he changes his family name to Sors. He then begins an illicit affair with his enigmatic first cousin Valerie (Jennifer Ehle) against his parents wishes and argues with his younger brother Gustave (James Frain) over politics. Fiennes second role is that of Ignatz’s son Adam who rises to national fencing champion. He’s a unpleasant sot who cheats on his wife (Molly Parker) with his own brother’s financ&eactue; (Rachel Weisz). To make life easier in the now Nazi regime, Adam becomes a Roman Catholic, an act that doesn’t save him during the Holocaust and he dies a god-awful death in a prison camp. Fiennes’ final role is as Adam’s son Ivan who becomes a cop during Stalin’s reign. This time around, his character decides to have a very dangerous affair with a policewoman (Deborah Kara Unger) who is married to a high-ranking communist party member. Not a warning from his friend and superior Andor Knorr (William Hurt) can dissuade him.

Ultimately, each of the Sonnenschien men sacrifices ethics and ideology for the sake of his own survival and, in the end, it is Ivan who discovers that there are some things not worth sacrificing.

Lotta says: As far as epics go, this film is all length without a truly dynamic story and characters necessary to sustain it. Fiennes’ three roles are very much the same and make it confusing to watch. It was a poor casting decision. Jennifer Ehle as the younger Valerie Sors and her real-life mother Rosemary Harris as the aged Valerie are the highlights.

Reviewed 1/15/01