It is easy to see why Sunday Bloody Sunday was celebrated on its initial release in 1971, with its civilised and matter-of-fact portrayal of a romantic relationship between two men that could not be more different to the Sturm und Drang of earlier Dirk Bogarde vehicles. Today, however, due to the pace of social change, the main narrative fails to grip. The film is nevertheless distinguished by two stand-out performances from Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch, its evocation of a very particular early seventies zeitgeist in a context of economic and social disintegration, and superb cinematography which, on this newly restored Blu-Ray print, simply glows.
The main story concerns the dynamic between Alex (Glenda Jackson), a spiky, feline, sometimes insidious thirty-something divorcee with unaddressed childhood war trauma, adrift from her posh parents; Daniel Hirsch (Peter Finch), a cultured, lonely doctor who dispenses a kindness to his physically and psychologically afflicted patients that he never receives himself; and Bob (Murray Head), the cipher by whom both are strangely fascinated, despite his callous penchant for making plans and breaking them. (In a particularly brilliant shot, an untended harmonograph continues to whirl endlessly, a visual representation of Bob’s endlessly ringing telephone, on which his lovers are constantly trying to contact him.) This triangle is monitored by the Hodsons, Alex’s kind, twitty, and exceedingly right-on academic friends and their appalling children, as well as an inquisitive woman at the telephone exchange played by Bessie Love.
Bob, while pretty enough in a very seventies way, is essentially an enigma, perhaps meant to be a blank canvas onto which the other main characters’ emotions can be projected. However, this device backfires: his character is so colourless, overshadowed by the other two more compelling personalities, that the viewer does not understand what they see in him and cannot invest much interest in their struggle for his elusive affections —a battle carried out in an extremely understated manner, but a deadly serious one nonetheless. It is complicated by a sense of reluctant comradeship in an impossible situation, conveyed especially by Finch’s beautiful performance. When Daniel asks after Alex during one of Bob’s visits, Finch shows that the enquiry is not motivated merely by jealousy, and suggests something approaching telepathy with Alex, deserted and in tears, minding the Hodsons’ children alone. (The almost imperceptibly developing rapprochement between the two rivals eventually culminates in one of the wryest shared smiles in cinema history.) Daniel suffers from Bob’s neglect just as much as Alex, but expresses it in a different way: “I always expect Saturday to be the best day of the week,” he says to Bob, obviously relieved that their appointment has been kept. It may be that the Boringness of Bob is meant to signpost a wider social problem, an isolation (mirrored by two different subplots —the struggles of one of Daniel’s neurotic, lonely patients with the breakdown of her marriage, and the melancholy of Alex’s friend, a middle-aged man recently let go by his firm), that drives the despairing pursuit of unpromising prospects. This low-key central human drama takes place against what, according to Alex’s car radio, is the country’s worst economic crisis since the war, mass unemployment forming a macro background to the atomism and solitude of the main story.
It has often been noted that Schlesinger’s hallmark was a compassion for a wide range of misfits, from Billy Liar to Midnight Cowboy, remarkably unconstrained by an extremely patrician background which comes across in the long BFI career retrospective interview from 1977 included on this disc. (It is delightful in its dead-pan self-satire, and reveals, among other interesting facts, that he was mentored by Michael Powell and Roy Boulting). It comes as no surprise that Daniel Hirsch is based on Schlesinger himself, nor that the plot is inspired by an unhappy menage a trois which he had himself endured in the sixties. Indeed, Daniel gradually becomes the emotional anchor of the story, partly through this autobiographical element and partly through Finch’s refined interpretation. The oldest of the characters, Daniel represents mid-century values —care, loyalty, and commitment— that may have marked the immediate post-war consensus but are now going out of fashion, contrasted starkly with Bob’s eagerness to follow commercial opportunities for his artistic talents to America. Bob’s interest in big money is merely a sign of the times: as Simon McCallum notes in his excellent booklet essay on the film, the co-opting of the counter-culture by business is one of the film’s sub-themes, a Habitat shop display window pointedly underlining the commodification of the hippy aesthetic.
Alex’s friends the Hodsons are a satire on seventies progressives, with their recorder-tooting and besmocked children, Oxfam posters, and, horrifyingly, recreational cannabis for the whole family —a teeth-grittingly accurate portrayal of a certain type of bourgeois bohemian. The children are, unsurprisingly, far too aware, particularly the unlikeable eldest child Lucy, who gloatingly asks Alex difficult questions about Bob (although the excellent script by Penelope Gilliatt somehow manages to convey that Lucy’s unpleasantness is not of her own making). It is Daniel, again, who is exposed to the grimmest side of the era. On a night-time excursion to the chemist’s he sees the effects of Class A drugs on other customers, some of whom seem to be there for medicine, while others are simply tripping. In one particularly disturbing shot a young woman, bruised in the face, clutches an enormous teddy bear. Here the darkness lurking outside the bourgeois bubble of the main narrative is made explicit, and it also invades Daniel’s later party, in the form of a very drunken, very aggressive woman whose behaviour disturbs, shocks and amuses the other guests.
Another especially compelling scene, and probably of particular autobiographical significance for Schlesinger, is Daniel’s dutiful attendance at his nephew’s bar mitzvah, a supremely awkward and poignant occasion —awkward because it exposes him to a particularly desperate attempt at matching him up with a bravely chipper, recently divorced woman, poignant because of the memory of his own bar mitzvah and the implied gulf between the innocence and optimism of youth and the disappointment and guilt of middle age. The scene’s interactions evoke the loneliness of the crowd: even at what is supposed to be a joyous family occasion, the wider social malaise makes itself felt. While Daniel does have a greater number of interesting scenes overall than Alex, her flashback --during a moment of crisis with the Hodsons’ children-- to a traumatic childhood episode during the Blitz when she discovered that her father had forgotten his gas-mask and frantically pursued him, goes a long way to explaining her defensive brittleness.
This release contains a generous amount of very interesting extra material, including Schlesinger’s undergraduate effort The Starfish, which, with its strange tale of an evil Cornish sea witch who hunts young holiday-makers from London, cannot have done much to promote positive inter-Britannic relations. (Interestingly, the very curly-headed boy in the film is Nigel Finzi, son of Gerald, the famous English composer). In black and white, it beautifully captures the atmosphere of 1950s Cornwall (sea witches aside, of course). Other early work on the disc includes Sunday in the Park, which displays the keen instinct for capturing humanity’s strangeness that Schlesinger would later bring to Terminus, with the same combination of near-sentimentality and mordant humour.
While not a complete success in the mould of some other Schlesinger films, Sunday Bloody Sunday has many moments of brilliance, and is particularly noteworthy for its intimate evocation of a particular historical milieu. As to the question that Schlesinger poses —whether the hippy revolution was a liberation, or an outbreak of self-indulgence that ultimately ate itself and irreparably tore the social fabric— Daniel’s melancholy end speech to the camera provides the director’s definitive answer. In this respect, the film is still provocative. --Isabel Taylor