Having secured both commercial and critical success with the daring, taboo-busting, and multi-Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy (1969), director John Schlesinger chose not to play it safe, but rather to follow up his triumph with Sunday Bloody Sunday, a deeply personal project that would become one of the most revelatory films of the 1970s, particularly in its frank, but thoughtfully mundane treatment of homosexuality. Prior to Schlesinger's film, homosexual characters in Hollywood films, whether they be fey, comical, tortured, or treacherous, were always explicitly marked as somehow "other." Even the most well-intentioned filmmakers tended to employ homosexuality-both explicitly or implicitly-as either deviant or tragic, which is why Schlesinger was determined to make a film the simply presented a gay relationship without great tumult or commentary. He rightly recognizes that the most powerful thing he could do was not draw attention to it.
Sunday Bloody Sunday, which, while not explicitly autobiographical, is essentially seeded from Schlesinger's own personal experiences, concerns a trio of Londoners whose entangled romantic lives embody the age-old dilemma of settling for something less than one's dreams versus cutting ties and trying again. Daniel Hirsch (Peter Finch) is an older Jewish doctor who is in love with Bob Elkin (Murray Head), a flighty, self-absorbed young artist (he's a kinetic sculptor) who refuses to commit to him (or really anyone or anything). Bob is also involved with Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), a recent divorcee who is also in love with him and is feeling less and less sure about her willingness to share him with Daniel. Bob, while selfish and noncommittal, is at least honest, as both Daniel and Alex are aware of the other's existence, something to which they are apparently resigned.
Fissures begin to widen during a weekend Alex and Bob are supposed to spend together housesitting for some bohemian friends and their five children. While Alex views this time as a "proper weekend" for she and Bob to spend together (one wonders if perhaps she is using the weekend as an opportunity to engage in fantasies of domestic bliss with Bob), Bob is frequently anxious to leave, which at one point he does to spend the afternoon with Daniel. Daniel is in the exact same dilemma, however, as the following week Bob storms out of a party at his flat and promptly heads to see Alex. Thus, both Daniel and Alex are the proverbial other (wo)man, and Bob flits between them at his discretion.
While the story originated with Schlesinger (Daniel is his on-screen surrogate), the screenplay is credited to Penelope Gilliat, a film critic who at the time shared duties at The New Yorker with Pauline Kael, although much of the dialogue came from an uncredited rewrite by David Sherwin (If ). Gilliat, who was also an accomplished novelist and short story writer, gives the story a loose, but sturdy structure that allows for digressions and diversions, such as when Daniel is confronted by a hustler he picked up some time in the past; the scene itself doesn't necessarily move the plot forward, but it provides additional insight into Daniel's life, a peak into the darker edges of his otherwise finely manicured existence.
Schlesinger's direction is less overtly showy than his work in Midnight Cowboy, which employed numerous jump cuts, unmarked flashbacks, near subliminal editing, and fantasy sequences, instead, he tends to rely more on the naturalistic impulses he developed as a documentary filmmaker. He brings a vivid, gritty sense of life to the film, and as he did in his previous works, grounds the action in a specific time and place (in this instance, the financial crisis hitting Britain in the early '70s pulls double duty as both a cultural backdrop and a kind of symbolic extension of the characters' personal crises). He does work in several flashback sequences that help to flesh out his characters' psychology, and at the end of the film he allows for a radical breaking of the fourth wall, as Daniel turns directly to the audience and explains his decisions regarding his relationship with Bob. It's a jarring, but incredibly moving moment of emotional nakedness that manages to heighten Finch's already superb performance.
When Sunday Bloody Sunday works, it is largely because of the impressive work by Finch and Jackson, who represent resigned acceptance and increasing jealousy and resentment, respectively (interestingly, neither was the filmmakers' first choice for the roles). They are in the same boat, but come to contrary conclusions: Daniel resigns himself to "half a loaf," convincing himself of the advice he gave to a patient's family that "People can manage on very little." Alex, on the other hand, refuses to believe her mother's admonition that "there is no thing" that can fully satisfy her; she can't bring herself to compromise, which may be her undoing. Finch brings a delicate, modest everyman quality to Daniel that is crucial to both his character's interpersonal conciliation and the film's presentation of homosexuality as one among many of his characteristics, rather than his defining trait. Jackson, on the other hand, brings a coiled energy that explodes at various points, even though her emotional outbursts are often followed by her own resignation to apologies that aren't deserved.
Where the film runs into trouble is the casing of Murray Head as Bob. Head, a musician by trade, is certainly effective in conveying Bob's shallowness and self-centeredness, but he fails to evoke any sense of why Daniel and Alex would be so in love with him. His capriciousness becomes his defining trait, thus canceling out any sense of dynamism or life that might explain the otherwise reasonable protagonists' willingness to subvert their own desires to his need to remain unattached (one could call him a "free spirit," but I think that's giving him too much credit, especially given how emotionally cruel he can be). Perhaps Schlesinger is suggesting, per the old axiom, that there is no reason in the human heart and that romantic love and the allure of togetherness trumps the realities of relational difficulties. Not surprisingly, then, Sunday Bloody Sunday at its best plays as a powerful, deeply human reminder of how desperate we can be for connection, however compromised it may be.
Copyright 2012 James Kendrick
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All images copyright The Criterion Collection and MGM/UA
Overall Rating: (3)
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