I once had a professor in college that I love and respect very much who once presented the argument (I’m unsure if she actually believed it or was just simply stating it out loud) that because cinema was such an originally proletarian form of artistic expression, it was pretentious to assume that cinema should aspire to be a higher art. Because it was originally created for mass consumption, the argument goes that the greatest films are those which can be enjoyed by the most people. True “art” was left for literature and the classical visual arts. Clearly, if you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you know I disagree (in fact, my review of The Master makes the exact opposite point), and films like 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday are the perfect example of why. A film that was light years ahead of its time in terms of LGBT content, Sunday Bloody Sunday is a slow-moving character study whose grasp of loneliness and desperation is nearly unparalleled.
I bring this all up not to sound pretentious or like the snobby cinephile all my readers know I am, but because Sunday Bloody Sunday (abbreviated to SBS from this point forward in review) is a film that is as far away from mass appeal as humanly possible, but it has the quiet power and raw emotional energy of the great pieces of American literature of the 20th century. The film, directed by John Schlesinger of Midnight Cowboy fame, has such a clarity of vision and honest understanding of its characters that the film doesn’t have to rely on emotional fireworks and explosive confrontations to achieve a near total devastation. In the same vein of A Single Man, SBS takes a subtle and sexy approach (40 years before that would enter the mainstream of LGBT cinematic storytelling) to exploring love, bisexuality, polyamory, and the overwhelming hopelessness of loneliness.
The film is often referred to as a romantic drama involving a “love triangle” although I think that’s ultimately inaccurate (for reasons I’ll expound on later). Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch) is an exiting middle-age homosexual Jewish doctor with a successful private practice. Alexandra Greville (Glenda Jackson) is a middle-aged woman with an unfulfilling career at an employment referral agency. The only thing the two have in common (besides a sense of emptiness in their lives) is that they both love the young, bisexual artist Robert Elkin (Murray Head). Taking place more or less over the course of one week, Sunday Bloody Sunday sketches an intimate portrait of the affection and meaning Alex and Daniel both seek from Robert while the always restless Robert hops from partner to partner always in search of the next new and exciting experience in his own life.
If the film sounds dull by that synopsis, it is surely not the most exciting film ever made, and SBS moves at its own consistently deliberate pace. And while the film does find itself at somewhat of a resolution by the movie’s end, it is not a “happy ending” that will leave many satisfied, and, in fact, I would argue that Sunday Bloody Sunday sets up this type of dissatisfaction intentionally because it’s an honest portrayal of the complex romantic entanglements that have formed in these people’s lives as well as a commentary on the way that we look for meaning in romance at the cost of actual self-improvement (more on that shortly). SBS is barely a story in the traditional sense of the word and it lacks any singular scene begging for the audience’s attention. However, the sheer strength of the film’s writing, characters, and performances kept me entranced until the end credits rolled.
Sunday Bloody Sunday won the BAFTA Award for Best Film and the two leads won Best Actor and Actress. I’m not intimately familiar with all of the other nominees that year but Glenda Jackson’s win was well-deserved and Peter Finch was no slouch himself. It would not be an understatement to say that Glenda Jackson gives one of the most powerfully subtle and restrained performances that I’ve seen for this blog (it’s really a shame she’s up against the firebrand, crazy turn from Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction for this 50 film block). Alex’s loneliness and sense that her life is going nowhere and doesn’t have much of a chance of changing is soul-crushing, and in every line of Alex’s aging face (just realized Glenn Close was an Alex as well), you see how she feels the world and fate closing in around her. It’s the type of emotionally naked (and physically naked occasionally) performance that you rarely saw from female actresses at the time. Apparently, Glenda Jackson also went on to be a member of Parliament after she retired from acting if you’re interested in random trivia.
And Peter Finch’s Dan has to be one of the most compelling LGBT characters to appear in a mainstream film (in so far as John Schlesinger has now entered the cinematic mainstream thanks to Midnight Cowboy). Anyone who’s seen The Celluloid Closet (a documentary chronicling the portrayal of LGBT characters in mainstream cinema) knows that well into the 1990s, it was an unwritten rule (except when it was written thanks to the Hays Code) that gay characters had to be in some type of psychic turmoil and they all suffered throughout the film. Certainly Dan has problems, but they are tame compared to Alex, and he’s an otherwise well-adjusted man. The simple fact that Peter Finch played against period homosexual stereotypes at every turn (he wasn’t foppish in the slightest) would be enough to cement this character’s legacy, but Finch also shows the quiet loneliness and repression that eat away at Dan’s soul. Murray head also makes an impact as the sensitive and androgynous beatnik that captures both Alex’s and Dan’s passions.
It’s a gorgeously shot film although Schlesinger’s famous tendency towards slipping in fantasies and flashbacks without any of the traditional visual transitions confused me slightly at first (although I immediately remembered my high school experience with Midnight Cowboy). Although once again, the film is gorgeous in a different way than, say, an Andrew Dominik film or Terrence Malick film. It doesn’t forcibly grab your attention. Instead, quiet lighting or a lingering shot on a sculpture of Bob’s (a strange but enchanting contraption involving what appears to be mercury and a reaction to music), Sunday Bloody Sunday underscores the need Alex and Dan need for beauty and pleasure in their desperate lives. Dan’s home is gorgeous and full of art, but the film never fails to hint at the emptiness seeping inside as well.
Sunday Bloody Sunday jumped to the top of my Netflix queue (The Crying Game was supposed to be the next film for me to watch according to my “master list” for this blog [which I’m also in the process of re-writing but that takes forever]) because it’s leaving Netflix Instant shortly. There are also like 9 other films in my instant queue that are leaving and I have to find time to watch as many of them as possible before they leave. One of these films is six hours long… and it’s the next one up. So, I’ll draw this review to a close although I hope you can tell that I have a lot more that I’d like to say about this movie. If you have any interest in quiet and powerful character studies as well as a film that is a hallmark of classic LGBT cinema, Sunday Bloody Sunday deserves your time and may very well be a true masterpiece of 1970s cinema period.
Final Score: A