‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ on TCM

John Schlesinger could write his own ticket after Midnight Cowboy, which won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay and earned him the Oscar for Best Director. He chose to return to England to make a small, personal, intimate film.

Sunday Bloody Sunday explores a romantic triangle that has settled into familiarity for the three members. Actor/musician Murray Head is Bob, a handsome, charismatic, somewhat callow young artist and free spirit who refuses to commit fully to his lover Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), a divorced employment counselor, and slips off to see Daniel Hirsch (Peter Finch), a quiet, sensitive, middle-aged physician who treasures whatever stolen moments he is gifted with. Alex and Daniel know that the other exists but there’s an unspoken agreement that they don’t talk about it, for their own piece of mind as much as Bob’s. As the film progresses we learn there is more between them than a shared younger bi-sexual lover. It could make the whole arrangement quite lurid but for Schlesinger’s mature and compassionate approach.

Sunday Bloody Sunday came from an idea developed by Schlesinger himself and he brought on Penelope Gilliat, a novelist and film critic with no previous screenwriting credits, to write the script. He had taken on social realist drama in A Kind of Loving and the swinging London and sexual liberation of the sixties in Darling. Sunday Bloody Sunday acknowledges both worlds but belongs to neither. This is a kind of loving in the everyday lives of successful, mature adults yearning for fulfillment and not quite getting it, and Schlesinger eschews the stylistic flash of previous films for a quieter, more intimate approach. It’s not calm so much as oppressive, an atmosphere of disillusionment and disconnection, where anxious phone calls are answered by a tetchy, nosy answering service operator and Alex and Daniel both wait for their lover to find time for them.

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Classic: John Schlesinger’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’

Sunday Bloody Sunday (Criterion) was John Schlesinger’s first film after “Midnight Cowboy” and the most personal film of his career, an intimate, compassionate story of a romantic triangle with two middle-aged divorcees (Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch) sharing a handsome young artist (Murray Head) who flits between them. It’s a quiet and powerful film and, despite the provocative language of the title, one without explosive sparks. This is about the slow, internal smolder of love and anxious yearning and the compromises we all make for love and companionship, physical and emotional.

Glenda Jackson is superb as the seemingly modern career woman with a sharp intelligence and a tart sense of humor and Finch even more touching as a gay man in early seventies London, a culture still very hostile to homosexuality. The film’s presentation of a loving romantic and sexual relationship between two men in the same naturalistic terms as a heterosexual romance was unprecedented for its time, at least in a mainstream movie. Finch’s quiet performance makes Bob a man first and a gay man second, a defining feature of the character without becoming the defining feature, and the physical and emotional intimacy between Finch and Head is presented with the same easy natural quality as the relationship between Jackson and Head: an enormous accomplishment for the time. The film earned Academy Award nominations for Schlesinger’s direction, Gilliat’s screenplay, and actors Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson, and it won five BAFTA awards, including Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Direction, and Best Film.

Criterion releases the Oscar-nominated film on Blu-ray and DVD in a newly remastered edition supervised by cinematographer Billy Williams. It features the 23-minute video essay “On Sunday Bloody Sunday” by Schlesinger biographer William J. Mann, new interviews by co-star Murray Head (7 minutes), cinematographer Billy Williams (13 minutes), production designer Luciana Arrighi (9 minutes), and Michael Childers, Schlesinger’s partner of many years (7 minutes), and an archival audio interview with Schlesinger from 1975. The accompanying booklet features a new essay by cultural historian Ian Buruma and an archival essay by Penelope Gilliatt.

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