MGM // 1971 // 110 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // September 8th, 2003
"I know you're not getting enough of me, but you're getting all there is." -- Bob Elkin
With a story that could only emerge out of the Me Decade, during which everyone was apparently consumed with morose attempts at self-discovery, Sunday Bloody Sunday tells the dual tales of a divorcée with abandonment issues named Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson, Women in Love), and Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch, Network), a Jewish doctor struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. The two are connected by a shared lover, Bob Elkin (Murray Head, who'd become a one-hit wonder of the 1980s with "One Night in Bangkok"), an artist of gaudy crap. In order to ensure the characters have little external conflict, freeing them up for nearly two hours of depressing narcissism, Alex and Daniel know about each other, and are accepting of (if not content with) Bob's resistance to any sort of commitment whatsoever.
Sunday Bloody Sunday is director John Schlesinger's follow-up to his brilliant, Academy Award-winning Midnight Cowboy (1969). It's a well-respected film that's garnered much acclaim. I've always hated it. Knowing I'd be watching it on DVD, I felt obligated (and even eager) to give it a fair shake. Maybe I'd have an epiphany. After all, I've gotten older since the last time I saw it; I've seen a lot of movies in the interim and my tastes have evolved.
I still hate it.
It's excruciatingly dull. The characters are drab and humorless, the sort of people you dread being tabled with at an acquaintance's wedding reception: during the brief moments they aren't lost in deep thought about themselves, they'd bore you to tears with banal observations about stuff like traffic and the weather. The script, written by Penelope Gilliatt, one-time film critic for The Observer, is painfully uncinematic (which I suppose was hip among some intellectuals during the '70s -- heaven forbid one stoop to entertaining an audience...how crass!). Standout moments include a dog being hit by a car, and a four-year-old toking a j-bird. Otherwise, the film is constructed of stirring sequences like Alex making instant coffee, then deciding it tastes like crap; Alex getting a haircut; Alex and Bob talking about Alex's haircut; Daniel writing a prescription for a former lover who's a drug addict; Alex, Bob, and a bunch of kids sitting around a table drawing pictures; Daniel, Bob, and a group of extras playing charades...for a really long time; Bob getting vaccinated for a trip to America; Daniel making small talk with his relatives at his nephew's bar mitzvah...for a really long time; and Bob hanging a clock on the wall while Alex spins in a chair. Oh, yeah, Alex has a one night stand with a middle-aged man, but Bob doesn't particularly care, so neither do we. To be fair, it would all work much better as a novel; we could truly get inside the characters' heads, but as cinema, we're left on the outside, watching bland characters we hardly know (and hardly want to know) go traipse through their bland lives. It's as if Schlesinger and Gilliatt came at the project with the intent of constructing a film out of the dreary minutiae of human existence, and excising anything that might approach drama. Okay, the prospect of Bob gallivanting off to America to sell his crappy wares is a major point of tension for Daniel, but did Schlesinger need to show me Bob strolling down to the clinic to get his vaccinations? He fesses up to Daniel in the very next scene, so why did I have to be subjected to Bob's chit-chat with a nameless doctor? I could see Alex got a haircut, and the fact she and Bob had a discussion about it underscored its thematic importance. Was it really necessary to make me sit through her entire visit to the salon?
For a film straining to express an air of intellectual sophistication, Alex and Daniel come off as children of the bourgeoisie whose mindsets, however they may view themselves, are decidedly bourgeois. There's little indication that either has a life bigger than their respective relationships with Bob, nor much sense that either spends an iota of time thinking about anything other than self. There's a hint that Daniel's an art collector, but if that's the case why can't he recognize how bad Bob's art is? Gilliatt and Schlesinger apparently define sophistication and maturity as Alex's and Daniel's recognition that Bob's a small-minded narcissist, coupled with an ennui that prevents them doing anything but giving in to his every whim. Still, the characters' failings are human and would have been palatable and true were they not so soulless and self-involved. If being an adult means a humorless, introspective existence in which one laughs little and spends loads of time staring dead-eyed into the distance, unengaged by the people around you, I'd prefer to remain a child (or childish), thank you.
The film's frank yet casual depiction of a homosexual relationship was a large part of its acclaim. Unfortunately, that facet of the movie doesn't have the same power three decades later. As a matter of fact, it plays as far less casual than it must have when it hit theaters. The way Schlesinger lingers on the first kiss between Finch and Head, and the way the two actors dive in as though aware they're doing something momentous and brave, is quaint and goofy. Sure, seeing Peter Finch maul a guy half his age is gross, but no more than seeing him maul a young lady would've been.
Most frustrating is that Gilliatt and Schlesinger, after painting themselves into a very drab corner by peopling their film with soulless characters and giving them nothing to do, try to cheat their way out of their own folly. In two unforgivably bad moments, Alex and Daniel verbalize for us what's going on in their heads, essentially explaining what the film is about and shortcutting their way toward closure. Alex's moment -- her thoughts relayed in corny voice-over as Jackson stares into the middle-distance -- is bad enough, but Daniel's takes the cake. In a fourth-wall violating ending, he addresses the camera, addresses us, expounding on the meaning of his relationship with Bob and the future he sees ahead of him. Well, why not? I suppose he'd be as likely to open up to us as anyone. After all, we did go with him to his nephew's bar mitzvah, and played that godawful game of charades with his boring friends.
In terms of DVD, this is a decent offering from MGM. It is barebones, but the 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer is handsome. The source print was surprisingly free of dirt or damage, colors are as vibrant as intended (not very), and flesh tones are natural. The image does have some rough spots in which grain is prevalent and detail is soft, but based on Schlesinger's raw approach to shooting, the flaws are forgivable.
The audio is a disappointment. The track is tinny and weak, even for a mono source of its age. It's also mixed very low -- I had to crank my system for dialogue to be comfortably discernible. Kudos to MGM for maintaining the film's original mono soundtrack, but the disc would've benefited from a bit more attention on the audio front.
The only extra is a trailer.
Obviously, I don't recommend the disc. Sunday Bloody Sunday is a painful exercise in pretension. However, it might be just the movie you're looking for if you're on death row and your execution date is fast approaching, or you've got a dentist appointment this afternoon that you're dreading, or your mother-in-law's scheduled to arrive for a month-long visit in a few hours: Sunday Bloody Sunday has the magical ability to postpone the inevitable (at least subjectively), by dilating 1 hour and 50 minutes into a small eternity.
Court's in recess.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer