1999 Toronto International Film Festival Daily Update #6: "Life In Wartime (Part One)"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 14, 1999

The time period of World War 2 is very popular at this year's Toronto Film Festival. And, although I'm only seeing a fraction of the WW2/Holocaust-themed motion pictures available, it's still going to require more than one day's update to get through them all. Fortunately, most of these movies are well made, which makes the task of writing about them (not to mention sitting through them) relatively enjoyable. And, in terms of distribution level, they basically run the gamut from high-profile Hollywood would-be blockbuster to small, obscure non-American films that will probably never be shown outside of festivals on this side of the Atlantic.

First and foremost is Lasse Hallstrom's The Cider House Rules. Backed by Miramax money, the director of My Life As a Dog has crafted a beautiful, emotionally resonant motion picture. The script is by John Irving and is based on his novel of the same name (Irving, incidentally, also has a cameo in the film as a station master near the end). Unlike last year's Simon Birch, this film stays reasonably true to its written inspiration and doesn't veer off into the territory of unbearable melodrama.

Most of the story transpires during the mid-1940s in an America that has added its strength to the Allied forces. Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) is ineligible to join the militia because of a bad heart. He has spent his entire life at an orphanage in St. Clouds, Maine as the special project of Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), who sees great promise in the boy and imparts valuable medical knowledge to him. By the time he has reached adulthood, Homer is as good a doctor as Larch, albeit without a degree. There is also a moral divide between them: Larch will perform abortions (even though they're illegal), but Homer will not. Life changes for Homer with the arrival of an Air Force officer and his girlfriend, Candy (Charlize Theron). She's at the orphanage for an abortion, and, after a brief stay, is ready to go home. Homer chooses this moment to hitch a ride with them out of St. Clouds so he can see the world and establish a life for himself. That life eventually includes picking apples at a remote orchard and falling in love with Candy while her beau is off flying missions in Europe. Meanwhile, back at the orphanage, Dr. Larch finds his hopes continually dimming that Homer will one day return.

The Cider House Rules does so many things right that it's almost impossible to list all of them here. Character development is strong. The plot moves at a perfect pace - not so slow that audiences will lose interest, but not so fast that the narrative begins to break down. There are a few unexpected turns, but nothing catastrophic or difficult to swallow, and the movie steers clear of overt manipulation. The acting, especially by leads Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Michael Caine, and Delroy Lindo, is solid, with the performers effectively bringing their characters to life. The ending is emotionally satisfying without being too sentimental. And the cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking.

Relationships in The Cider House Rules are complex. Larch and Homer are more like father and son than mentor and pupil. The boys and girls at the orphanage have forged a strong bond as a result of the shared experiences of loneliness and dejection - each time a family comes to adopt, all but one of the boys and girls will be disappointed. (It's also a pleasure to see an orphanage not straight out of Dickens.) Homer's love affair with Candy is clouded by uncertainty - what will happen if/when her boyfriend returns? Whom will she choose? And Homer's relationship with the other apple pickers becomes increasingly convoluted the more he gets to know about them and their well-guarded secrets.

In a little over two hours, with a strong cast, an accomplished cinematographer (Oliver Stapleton), and a well-tuned script, Hallstrom has fashioned a motion picture of great emotional depth that defies conventions as it successfully turns back the clock to wartime years and tells a story that is unique, despite a number of familiar elements. For me, it has been one of the high points of the festival (at least to this point), and should receive acclaim when it opens across North America later this year. If it can avoid being buried in the avalanche of other high-profile fall releases, The Cider House Rules should be able to generate a few Oscar nominations.

Another much anticipated offering is Scott Hicks' Snow Falling on Cedars, based on the best-selling novel by David Guterson. Its intended release date is sooner than that of The Cider House Rules, so the two films, which share several themes as well as a time period, probably won't be siphoning off viewers from one other. Nevertheless, they are complimentary - a fact that becomes more apparent when they're watched back-to-back.

Snow Falling on Cedars features a multi-layered structure that is characterized by flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks. Events are presented non-chronologically, with frequent, repeated jumps through time to flesh out the characters' backgrounds and reveal the truth of the mystery that lies at the film's core. This is apparently an approach that Hicks feels comfortable with - he employed something similar (albeit less convoluted) in his previous movie, Shine. Despite the complexity of the structure, it's not difficult to follow the progression of events. Changes in actors (characters as children versus adults), hairstyles, lighting, and weather all serve to tip us off about which era any particular scene is transpiring in.

The movie is framed as a courtroom mystery in the Pacific Northwest during the early 1950s, with a local Japanese fisherman being tried for the death of another man. Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke), a reporter for the local newspaper, watches impassively as events unfold. Gradually, we learn that Ishmael's first and only true love is Hatsue (Youki Kodoh), the wife of the man on trial. As he begins to research background information, he discovers facts that neither the prosecutor (James Rebhorn) nor the defense attorney (Max von Sydow) are bringing out in court. But the bitterness he feels towards Hatsue for inexplicably ending their relationship years ago keeps him silent.

Snow Falling on Cedars also addresses one of the darkest aspects of 20th century American domestic policy - the internment of thousands of Japanese American citizens in concentration camps during the 1940s. After Pearl Harbor, paranoia was high, and anyone who even appeared Japanese became a target. Without adopting a preachy or didactic tone, and by setting many of the flashbacks in and around the Japanese American community during the war years, this movie illustrates not only the broad spectrum of obvious rights violations that occurred in this time, but some of the more subtle and insidious ones as well.

Hicks' movie is a stirring look at both broad political issues and the smaller ones that determine each individual's code of ethics. Snow Falling on Cedars is not without a few minor missteps. The dialogue occasionally goes over the top (as when Max von Sydow pompously states, "Accident rules every courtroom in the universe, except maybe the chambers of the human heart"). Hicks also goes overboard in the sound mixing department, often utilizing a sort of echo-effect where lines of dialogue are repeated several times in a row. If employed sparingly, it could have been effective. Overused, it becomes irritating.

Both The Cider House Rules and Snow Falling on Cedars are relatively "small" tales (I'm speaking only of their scope with that description, not their quality). Istvan Szabo's Sunshine, however, is epic in both scope and length. The longest film being shown at this year's festival, it runs three hours, and features a high-level cast that includes Ralph Fiennes, Rosemary Harris, Rachel Weisz, John Neville, and William Hurt. Szabo, the acclaimed and often awarded director of such films as 1981's Mephisto (for which he won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar), has clearly lavished a great deal of time and attention on crafting a grand motion picture that is engrossing enough to keep audiences riveted for the full running time.

The film follows 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. Sunshine is loosely divided into three periods. The first spans the era from the late 1800s to the years just after World War 1. The second picks up in the 1930s and concludes at the end of World War 2. And the third begins in the late 1940s and finishes around 1960. Each era has a different central character, although all three (grandfather, father, and son) are played by Ralph Fiennes. One individual, Valerie (Jennifer Ehle as a young woman; Rosemary Harris in later years), survives virtually the entire movie, providing a glue that keeps the story together.

On one level, Sunshine can be viewed as little more than an entertaining historical melodrama about the tribulations of a group of characters set against genuine historical events. But there's a deeper theme at work here, as well. It has to do with the repetitive cycle of history and how power inevitably corrupts, no matter who wields it. Throughout Sunshine, governments in Hungary rise and fall - a dictatorship, a Nazi regime, and more than one flavor of Communism - and all bear a remarkable similarity to each other. Each of the characters played by Fiennes has an opportunity to be both a hero and a criminal, depending on who is in power.

Szabo effectively realizes more than 70 years of history, and presents a gallery of interesting characters. Sub-themes and moments abound. (One of the most compelling scenes depicts the Sonnenschein family gathered around a radio listening anxiously as a Hungarian government official details exactly who will be considered a "Jew" and who is exempt.) Ultimately, the director may have tackled a scope so vast that even three hours is not enough to contain it, but the result, while somewhat uneven, is still solidly entertaining and occasionally thought provoking.

© 1999 James Berardinelli

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