Ralph Fiennes plays three of the major characters: a young lawyer who becomes a prominent judge under the Austro-Hungarian empire (he changes his name from Sonnenschein to the more Hungarian-sounding Sors to advance in his career), his son the fencing champion (he converts to Catholicism in order to be able to compete with the best fencers), and the fencing champion's son (the film's narrator), who survives seeing his father tortured and killed in a concentration camp. Fiennes does a phenomenal job. Certainly you can't forget that the same guy is playing three characters, but he makes those characters distinct enough that you don't feel like it's a gimmick--rather, you feel there's a strong family resemblance.
Great performances also from Jennifer Ehle, who plays the narrator's grandmother, Valerie, as a younger woman, and Rosemary Harris (Ehle's mother in real life) who plays Valerie as an older woman--a character who seems to have survived all the great events of history unscathed.
At three hours, it's a long movie, but it covers about a hundred years. Regardless of length, it's one of those movies that completely absorbs you, that you live in for days afterward. All movies should be like this.
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