Criterion // 1971 // 110 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 7th, 2012
It's about three different people. They will beak your heart.
"There are times when nothing has to be better than something."
Dr. Daniel Hirsch (Peter Finch, Network) and Alex Greenville (Glenda Jackson, Mary, Queen of Scots) are two people who are connected in an unusual way: they're both conducting a love affair with the same person. The object of their affection is Bob Elkin (Murray Head, Gawain and the Green Knight), a young, handsome creator of kitschy inventions. Initially, the arrangement seems to work rather smoothly and this progressive romance looks like it just might have a shot. Alas, as time passes, tensions start to build and the whole triangle begins to deteriorate. Do these three people have a shot at happiness?
It's said that Sunday Bloody Sunday is director John Schlesinger's most personal film, as it essentially recreates the kind of relationship that Schlesinger was once a part of. Perhaps the director's close personal connection to the material explains why he expected audiences to be able to connect with a film comprised of dull, self-absorbed characters who spend the majority of their screen time moping about their existence. The film was Schlesinger's follow-up to Midnight Cowboy, an honest, passionate, empathetic film that still packs a punch to this day. That movie was anchored by two central characters worthy of our attention and affection. In the wake of that powerhouse, Sunday Bloody Sunday seems alarmingly distant, affected and lifeless.
Perhaps in the hazy days of the early '70s the film seemed daring, but I'm sorry to report that it's aged quite poorly. In a rave review that was published at the time of the film's release, New York Times critic Vincent Canby praised the Murray Head character as an, "embodiment of the so-called new morality, which, in this case, amounts to enlightened selfishness." Yes, but enlightened selfishness is still selfishness, and it's difficult to understand why Daniel and Alex manage to stick with this self-serving twit as long as they do. Bob never demonstrates an ounce of kindness or genuine affection; he's purely a sexual plaything who follows his own whims without a thought for the feelings of others. We're meant to feel badly for Alex and Daniel as they struggle with having to share their boy toy, but it's difficult to feel much pity when the pain is so clearly needless and self-inflicted.
The film has been praised for its casual portrait of a homosexual relationship, but there's nothing terribly casual about it. After that controversial early moment in which Daniel and Bob share a particularly passionate kiss, there's an awkward, prolonged pause that seems to be giving audiences of 1971 time to applaud, gasp, or walk out. "Look at what we just did!" the film practically shouts. In its own way, it now feels every bit as artificial as, say, the ridiculously wild bedroom romps presented in Ken Russell's delightfully frenzied The Music Lovers. Of course, many things that once seemed progressive can feel a bit underwhelming to modern eyes. Schlesinger was intent on keeping the tone muted and naturalistic, but at a certain point the unyielding tactfulness begins to feel phony. Scenes that ought to turn into angry arguments are instead presented as sessions of passive-aggressive whining. After the conversations are concluded and the problems are unresolved, the characters stare into the distance and sulk.
The actors all do solid work, even if they're all playing roles that begin to feel a bit monotonous after a while. Peter Finch sells quiet sadness particularly well, despite the fact that it's a bit difficult to care to much about the specifics of his plight. Observing the way he looks at Head, we're almost convinced that the young man might actually be something special. Glenda Jackson handles her scenes of emotional distress with aplomb, and Head effectively depicts a thoroughly unlikable character. It's the pretentious navel-gazing of the screenplay and the direction that are at fault, not the work of the cast.
Sunday Bloody Sunday: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray) has received an exceptional 1080p/1.66:1 transfer that offers impressive clarity while also preserving the film's natural grain structure. The level of detail is atypically strong for a film of the era, and the lush cinematography has been well-preserved (including some moments of prominent softness). Blacks are deep and flesh tones are natural. The PCM 1.0 Mono track is effective enough, offering a crisp, clean presentation of the dialogue and an occasionally dynamic treatment of the film's subdued yet eclectic soundtrack. There isn't much in terms of complex sound design, as this is a conversation-driven film to a large degree. Supplements include thoughtful video interviews with actor Murray Head, cinematographer Billy Williams, production designer Luciana Arrighi, Schlesinger's partner Michael Childers and Schlesinger biographer William J. Mann, an audio lecture from the director, a theatrical trailer and a booklet featuring essays by Ian Buruma and screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt.
There's a brief, brilliant moment that offers the sort of sly realism Sunday Bloody Sunday could have used so much more of. One night, Alex and Bob fall asleep in front of the fireplace, their nude bodies artfully entwined in a manner that ever-so-carefully disguises their naughty bits. The shot fades as we leave the lovers to their blissful evening. Suddenly, we cut forward a few hours. The fire has burned out, and the two wake up shivering and uncomfortable. They stumble as they rush to get up off the floor, frantically cover themselves with as many articles of clothing and blankets they can find and desperately leap under the sheets of their warm bed. If Sunday Bloody Sunday had been so unflinching and witty about the behavior of these characters throughout the rest of the film, we might have really had something. Additionally, the scenes featured a horde of alarmingly free-spirited children (who smoke joints on a regular basis and are comfortable watching their parents engage in all sorts of sexual activity) have a certain spark that enlivens the early portions of the movie.
Sunday Bloody Sunday is a disappointingly lifeless, exasperating follow-up to the magnificent Midnight Cowboy. Fans of the film will be pleased with Criterion's typically stellar treatment of Schlesinger's intensely personal drama.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated R