Film/DVD: review

Sunday Bloody Sunday

Sunday Bloody Sunday
Directed by John Schlesinger
 
1971, UK — 110 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.66:1 — Drama

Emotionally rich and visually superb exploration of a bi/gay/straight love triangle in early '70s London.

Review

ImageSunday Bloody Sunday (1971) is an emotionally rich and visually striking exploration of a love triangle, involving a young bisexual artist, a gay doctor and a straight businesswoman, in then-contemporary London. Not only is it a landmark in the history of gay cinema – and for many more reasons than the epoch-making kiss of Peter Finch and Murray Head – it is also arguably the masterpiece of director John Schlesinger, and one of the best films of the 1970s. 1971, when it was released, was a banner year for British and American film, boasting A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick), Walkabout (Roeg), The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich), and two of Ken Russell's most brilliantly eclectic works, The Devils and The Boy Friend. That year, Sunday Bloody Sunday was nominated for every major award in both the U.K. and U.S, and won several, including – among others – the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards for best picture, director, actress (Glenda Jackson), actor (Peter Finch) and editing (Richard Marden), while screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt took both the Writers Guild of America, USA and the Writers' Guild of Great Britain awards for best original screenplay. Although I know many people who revere Sunday Bloody Sunday, I have also read some extremely negative comments ("pretentious and boring" and "hated it... just hated it!"). I hope this review, with its specific reasons for lauding the film, will encourage you to see, or re-see, it and decide for yourself.

Sunday Bloody Sunday covers ten pivotal days in a complicated three-person relationship. Dr. Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch – The Trials of Oscar Wilde, Network), a fiftyish physician, and Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson – Women in Love, A Touch of Class), a thirtyish corporate job counselor, are both deeply in love with a rising young artist named Bob Elkin (Murray Head). Bob professes to love both of them – and everyone involved knows the scope of the arrangement – although he moves freely between them. Daniel and Alex must each grapple with the situation, he to come fully to terms with being gay, and she to face her fear of being alone. This brief period is also a possible turning point in Bob's life, as he lands a major commission for his art but which requires him to go to the U.S.

When openly-gay director John Schlesinger died at age 77, on July 25, 2003, he left two dozen diverse films, including such exceptional 1960s works as Billy Liar, Darling, and Midnight Cowboy (the only time the Oscar went to a Best Picture rated "X"), and one of the most popular and acclaimed thrillers of the '70s, Marathon Man. During his 40-year career, in both Britain and the U.S., he had worked with many outstanding actors – including Laurence Olivier, Dustin Hoffman, Julie Christie, Glenda Jackson, Peter Finch, not to mention Madonna – and lived with his life partner, photographer Michael Childers. In 1970 he offered an insight into his films, which was relevant for both his past and future works, "I'm only interested in one thing: that is tolerance. I'm terribly concerned about people and the limitation of freedom. It's important to get people to care a little for someone else. That's why I'm more interested in the failures of this world than the successes." In recent years he noted, "I've always had more sympathy for the struggler, the underdog, the person who isn't so much glamorous as on the fringe of everything.... If I've ever had any commercial success, it's been a total fluke. I wouldn't have known Midnight Cowboy would have done so well." Having seen all of Schlesinger's feature films (although not all of his half-dozen made-for-television movies), I believe that Sunday Bloody Sunday is his most extraordinary work. I re-see it every few years, and always find new subtleties, and beauty.

Sunday Bloody Sunday is a deeply compassionate film, neither clinical nor judgmental – and one which invites each of us to view it through our individual perspective. It deals with people in all of their messy but vital humanity, trying to pursue happiness while simultaneously attempting to understand themselves and to deal with the paradoxes (sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking) of modern life. It is neither advocating nor condemning these people or their unorthodox relationship, which was then frightfully more controversial than now. Although the film does not reflect my personal experience (whew!), I like how it opens me to three complex, fascinating and very real individuals, even as it uses all of the resources of cinema – an extraordinarily rich interplay of drama, image and sound – to dig beneath the surface of their lives. It is simultaneously one of the most "novelistic" and cinematic works I know.

Dramatically, the film owes much of its richness not only to Schlesinger's stylistic bravura – and of course the multi-layered performances of Jackson and Finch – but to screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt (1932–1993). She probes her characters' inner lives with the rigor of the best contemporary authors; sadly, this was her only screenplay. (Although also a novelist and short story writer, Gilliat is best known as a film critic for London's The Observer and The New Yorker.)

Schlesinger's imagery is both more lush and more refined than in his previous films, such as Midnight Cowboy. (Although I admire and am deeply moved by that picture, the style seems a bit too technically virtuosic for the characters.) For me, each shot in Sunday Bloody Sunday, no matter how seemingly mundane the content, is gorgeously – yet not ostentatiously – composed; and the slow, almost gentle, tracking shots which circle characters seem to be exploring a character fully, both literally and figuratively, from every angle. This is that rare picture where even the most seemingly incongruous images – such as the shots of telephone cables and switches (which I discuss below) – feel exactly right.

ImageSchlesinger never lets his richly diverse imagery become overwrought or, even worse, cheaply commentative; rather it functions like metaphor at its most subtle and resonant. His images draw together a whole range of seeming contradictions, even as they reveal their deeper connections. On the most overt level, this is a film about the contrast of youth (Bob) and middle age, both early (Alex) and not (Daniel). We see these characters' many points of common desire, and even experience. But the film also widens that traditional theme to include both several different children (from the rambunctious Hodson kids to Daniel's nephew at his bar mitzvah) and a range of older characters, from Daniel and Alex's respective parents to Daniel's patients and Alex's one-night stand, the unemployed former executive, George Harding. Each of those characters adds a new layer to our understanding of the full spectrum of life, even as they expand the range of perspectives which the film includes. But always our focus is on the central trio – who play off each other as suggestively as the other characters play off of them. (Bob is at the center of the triangle, as I'll discuss below; but his role – like his character – is much more subtle and evocative than you might expect.) Another thematic, and visual, pairing which runs throughout the film is the contrast between being alone – few films spend as much time with each major character in isolation, just being themselves – and being in a crowd (whether a big bustling family like the Hodsons or the dozens of people at the bar mitzvah or crowds on Londoners on the streets or in the parks).

The thematic/visual motif which struck me most deeply on this viewing – perhaps because I hadn't focused on it before – involved technology; it also helped me understand why Schlesinger has so many shots of telephone cables and switches. The film draws a resonant, and I think subtle, connection between the machinery of modern life (phones are significant because they are supposed to aid us in communicating with each other: and they do, if only in the most literal way) and Bob's art.

The character of Bob seems more complex and fully-realized with each viewing, and part of that is because I now realize that the art which he makes is a – perhaps the – key to understanding him. (Murray Head, the ingratiating young man playing Bob, is best known as a singer/actor, having created the role of Judas on the original 1970 studio album of Jesus Christ Superstar and introduced the 1984 smash "One Night in Bangkok" on the concept album of the musical Chess.) Although some people see Bob as "bland," or worse, his artworks reveal much about his character. (Unlike Alex and Daniel, we never meet his parents, or even learn anything about his family or background – which is arguably one of the film's few dramatic flaws. I say "arguably" because the resulting ambiguity will certainly appeal to some viewers, who will have maximum latitude to flesh out Bob's past for themselves.)

ImageBob's "installations" reflect the Pop art of its day (and although Daniel asks, knowingly, if the Americans don't already have something like it: Bob responds that, even so, they are still interested in his work). His work is genuinely graceful, playful, beautiful – with its tall slender tubes of colored water and shimmering light – yet also somehow inconsequential. His dream is to build pieces that are bigger, including one to "fill a room:" of course we all know that size isn't everything. Still, Bob is very much a young man – and artist – in his prime, wiry, sensual, full of life, yet sensitive – or at least not insensitive – to the feelings of the two people he's involved with. Who can say what he will achieve in the future?

It is also significant that although Bob is shown with several attractive women and men throughout the film, he doesn't give a single glance of interest to any of them (although by "popular" standards many are more traditionally "beautiful" than Alex or Daniel). So Bob is "monogamous," only it's with two people – of different genders: polyfidelity or, more precisely, 'bifidelity.' Also to Bob's credit is that he knows how to use art to heal people, as we see with the drawing game he devises to let the young Hodson children work through their grief after their beloved Rottweiler is killed. But in a film this emotionally, and thematically, rich, there are always several "however's" – so, however: part of the appeal of America for Bob is it's promise of new experiences that are artistic, financial, and perhaps amatory. Bob is the emotional, perhaps even moral, touchstone for each of the other characters. Thematically, the weightiness – and suggestiveness – of that role (thanks to Gilliatt's screenplay and Schlesinger's direction) contrasts dramatically with the delicacy of the character's artworks.

Historically, this film is remarkable for its completely natural, and un-sensationalistic, handling of bi and gay characters. There had been a few male/male kisses before, but Gilliatt and Schlesinger's is perhaps the first to grow naturally out of the characters rather than to be imposed for mere "shock value" (as in, say, 1968's The Sergeant). Not only is Daniel one of Peter Finch's best performances (he won acclaim for playing gay icon Oscar Wilde 11 years earlier, and won his Oscar five years later, posthumously, for Network), he is a superbly well-written and fully fleshed-out character. We also see a glimpse of another aspect of Daniel's homosexual life, in the scene when he runs into a garrulous former trick, called "the Scotsman" in the credits and played by Jon Finch. (Also in 1971, he played the title role in Polanski's Macbeth; he is no relation to Peter Finch. For trivia buffs, the scene in which Daniel and the Scotsman meet also allows Schlesinger to tip his hat to Blowup (1966); the band of raucous kids which Daniel passes bears an uncanny resemblance to the revelers who begin and end Antonioni's film.)

Unlike most "love triangle" movies, it never descends to melodrama; yet it remains both riveting and entertaining. Even more remarkably, especially for a film of its time, it is resolutely not a closet heterosexist drama, i.e., it never covertly compels us to root for the "normal" male/female couple to "win," as is often the case with threesome pictures. As I will discuss later in this review, the film takes yet another extraordinary turn in its final minutes, when Daniel speaks to us directly.

Arguably the most compelling, and fully revealed, character is Alex. Some people consider this Glenda Jackson's single greatest performance; and with the immense yet subtle breadth of her acting, it is easy to see why. Many of us hope that this only Oscar-winning member of Parliament, not to mention one of the half-dozen best actors of her generation, will eventually return to the screen and stage.

Alex (with her non-gender-specific name) is the fiery heart of this film, as she moves from quiet desperation to intense reflectiveness (which Schlesinger visualizes brilliantly, as we will see a bit later) to delightfully scathing wit. Who can ever forget this exchange between Alex and Bob in the basement while changing a fuse – a flawless joining of writing, direction, and performance:

Bob: Don't come to me like a possessive wife.
Alex: Well, I wouldn't if you hadn't left me with [the Hodsons'] five children and a dog.
Bob: Look, I know you feel you're not getting enough of me, but you're getting all there is.
Alex: Well, you're spreading yourself a little thin, aren't you?

ImageEach time I resee this film, I notice more about the peripheral characters, and how they connect with the three leads. This time I was fascinated by the enigmatic figure of the switchboard operator, played by Bessie Love (1898–1986). (Her career is so varied that it merits this parenthetical: Born Juanita Horton in 1898, she played a small part in Intolerance in 1916 – when D.W. Griffith thought up her screen name, starred in the fantasy classic The Lost World (1925), got an Oscar nomination for The Broadway Melody (1929), and appeared in two 1981 films, Ragtime and Reds, among many other pictures.) This unnamed operator, who handles both Alex and Daniel's calls (putting her literally at the center of the story), comes across as both real and symbolic – and always funny. The smallest variations in the type of smile she gives provides comment about the goings-on between the central trio. With her wryly expressive face, she takes on an almost Olympian feel, like some kind of jacked-in Fate. At the same time she provides a human "interface" for the wires and switches of her profession, once again bringing us back to the technology motif noted above. The fact that she is both omniscient, behind her vast switchboard, yet very limited – and judgmental – in her understanding (she just can't seem to remember anyone's name quite right), is a witty comment on technology, not to mention the vagaries of human nature.

ImageThe sequence which seemed, on my latest viewing, to be the most central to the film on all levels – character, theme, style, technique – involves Alex and Bob babysitting the five Hodson children, not to mention their pet monkey and Rottweiler (see chapter 7 of the DVD). This sequence lets us see the important, and not uniformly blissful, domestic side of Alex and Bob's relationship. It also gives Gilliatt and Schlesinger their fullest opportunity to contrast Alex and Bob with people much younger than themselves, since the Hodsons kids range in age from an infant to under ten. On one level, they provide some delicious – and affectionate – opportunities for satire on the ultra-left-wing (and temporarily off-screen) Hodson parents. There's one hilarious, not to mention unnerving, moment when Alex sniffs the air, then asks, "Children... are you smoking pot?" To which the very young Lucy immediately responds, "Are you bourgeois?" There is also a hint of the less thoughtful side of liberalism in, of all things, the name of the dog: Kenyatta. He is named after Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya. Yet we have to ask ourselves (even if the Hodsons have not) if the best way to pay tribute to a leader of African independence is to name a dog after him.

Kenyatta's significance to the film, as a whole, becomes even greater after he is tragically killed by a hulking produce truck. (It is to Schlesinger's great credit that he is able to wrest such original and even beautiful images from a dead dog surrounded by rolling potatoes; just imagine how pathetic or even ludicrous this could be in the hands of a less inspired filmmaker.) His death sends precocious little Lucy back to her childhood, as she becomes a screaming, hysterical – and painfully real – little kid for the first time. Most significantly for the film is the impact all of this has on Alex, who drifts in and out of one of the most effective stream-of-consciousness sequences since Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). Alex sees Lucy and tries to comfort her, even as she remembers herself as a little girl, running and screaming during the Blitz to get her father a gas mask since he left home without it. Then she keeps imaging Lucy dead instead of Kenyatta. Present and past, reality and nightmare, and the feelings of fear and caring and loss they bring up, tumble all over each other. Far from being some exercise in artsy non-linear narrative and visual pyrotechnics, this comes across as perhaps the most emotionally overwhelming, and intellectually mesmerizing, part of the entire film. Character, perspective, drama, theme, image, movement, sound – cinema – as lived experience.

Which is not to say that among the film's many layers, some which are cerebral, even enigmatic. For instance, what does the title mean? Good question! It seems to refer more to British "kitchen sink" Realist films, like Karel Reisz's excellent Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), than to any of the various historical atrocities which occurred on Sundays – each of which is referred as "Bloody Sunday." The most infamous of those happened on Sunday, January 22, 1905, when thousands of striking workers marched peacefully to Czar Nicholas II's Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to ask for reforms, but were met by government troops who opened fire on them, killing or wounding hundreds. (I've heard some people attribute the title of Gilliatt's screenplay to the notorious "Bloody Sunday" of Northern Ireland in 1972, but that is incorrect since it occurred a year after the picture's release.) But could the title, however peripherally, connect with the various radio and television newscasts, heard in the background throughout the film, which talk about the "economic disaster" which has hit the U.K.? Those are the volatile situations which produce "Bloody Sundays." (Of course, in Britain "bloody" is also a profane intensifier; it may have derived from a sacrilegious use of the phrase "by our Lady.") If possible, an even bigger stretch is to note that the title contains two elements the same and one different, as the film contains two people of one gender and one of the other. Perhaps more significant is that all three terms are juxtaposed without any punctuation: they are just there. But that is too much of a stretch (even for me); and I can tell that it's time to exit this 'title interpretation' paragraph now!

ImageNow, from "bloody" to the sublime. Schlesinger's choice of a musical leitmotif, which occurs several times throughout the film (and is played under the end credits), is brilliantly inspired: "Soave sia il vento." (The complete lyric is: "Gentle be the breeze,/ Calm be the waves,/ And every element/ Smile in favor/ On your wishes.") That trio from Così fan tutte (1790) is one of Mozart's most ravishingly beautiful creations. And the opera, with its original libretto by Mozart's great literary collaborator Lorenzo DaPonte, shares many of this films's themes: romantic rapture, the complex nature of honesty and fidelity, and the "sweet sorrow" of parting. In "Soave sia il vento," we have the most harmonious balance of three people expressing themselves with immense beauty at a moment of pain, when they are (temporarily) going their separate ways.

That trio also reminds us that this is a film of balance, although that balance takes many different forms. Bob is at the center but his is the most openly-defined character; we see Alex go through the widest emotional range; yet we sense Daniel's feelings although he does not express them. And it is in the final minutes, after Bob has flown off to the U.S. – and who knows what new experiences – that we have Daniel addressing us directly, looking right into the camera. This is still perhaps the most "shocking" moment in the entire film, although it is also the logical culmination of a work which is all about exploring, exposing, and ultimately accepting its richly-human characters.

ImageWhen Daniel speaks to us, we most fully and clearly see into his nature (I almost said "soul"), even as he holds a mirror up to each one of us. In addition to learning more about Daniel, we also sense our common humanity – more important than our personal sexual orientation, or gender, or age, or situation in life. Here is something which film or literature has never seen before: a gay man as everyman, every human. Voicing our collective experience – rueful yet deeply affirmative in its honesty and understanding – even as he tells us about himself:

Daniel: When you are in school and want to quit, people say you're going to hate being out in the world. Well, I didn't believe them and I was right. When I was a kid, I couldn't wait to be grown up. And they said childhood was the best time of your life. But it wasn't. And now, I want his company, and they say, what's half a loaf, you're well shot of him. And I say, I know that. I miss him. That's all. And they say, he never made you happy. And I said, but I am happy. Apart from missing him.... All my life, I've been looking for somebody courageous, resourceful. He's not it. But something. We were something...."

The film is left richly and evocatively open. We may think we know the answers to the questions which the film implies at the end, but do we really? For people who connect with Sunday Bloody Sunday, the possibilities may seem to shift each time we watch the film anew.

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Crew

  • Directed by John Schlesinger
  • Written by Penelope Gilliatt
  • Produced by Joseph Janni
  • Cinematography by Billy Williams
  • Edited by Richard Marden
  • Production Design by Luciana Arrighi
  • Art Direction by Norman Dorme
  • Costume Design by Jocelyn Rickards
  • Sound by David Campling & Gerry Humphreys
  • Original music by Ron Geesin
  • Principal additional music: "Soave sia il vento" (trio from Mozart's opera Così fan tutte – libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte)

Cast

  • Peter Finch as Dr. Daniel Hirsh
  • Glenda Jackson as Alex Greville
  • Murray Head as Bob Elkin
  • Bessie Love as the Switchboard Operator
  • Tony Britton as George Harding
  • Peggy Ashcroft as Mrs. Greville
  • Maurice Denham as Mr. Greville
  • Vivian Pickles as Alva Hodson
  • Frank Windsor as Bill Hodson
  • Thomas Baptiste as Prof. Johns
  • Hannah Norbert as Daniel's Mother
  • Harold Goldblatt as Daniel's Father
  • Jon Finch as the Scotsman

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DVD

The DVD from MGM offers good image and sound, but the only extra feature is the theatrical trailer.

DVD Details

Reviewed April 3, 2004

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