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By José Teodoro
It begins with hands, a doctor’s hands, pressing gently into the flabby belly of a nervous, middle-aged patient. And again and again, hands reappear—most often those of Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson) or of Daniel Hirsch (Peter Finch), each caressing the smooth, naked back of Bob Elkin (Murray Head), an ambitious sculptor and the significantly younger lover of both—hands touching, caressing, but never quite grasping or clutching, because one of the great, peculiar strengths of John Schlesinger’s semi-autobiographical Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) is that it contains so little in the way of desperation or revelation or panic—in other words, drama, tension, catharsis. What might be deemed the story’s central conflict has been accepted as irresolvable by all the characters before the story even begins: Alex would like Bob to herself; Daniel would like Bob to himself; each knows about the other, and each knows that such exclusivity is never going to be attained. (Penelope Gilliatt’s screenplay, which fails to demarcate a clear single protagonist, would never have survived a run through the story editing apparatus employed by today’s organizations charged with nurturing something called “script development.”) The only real dramatic impetus of the film is Bob’s musing over whether he should move to the US, where he imagines a livelier, freer, more robust culture ostensibly eager to embrace his luminous, large-scale artworks. By the end of the film, Bob does resolve to go, and Alex and Daniel know he’s going to go; there’s nothing to be done. Sunday Bloody Sunday’s central “action” is simple acceptance, accompanied by a dull ache. The film’s key musical motif is a recording of “Soave sia il vento”—which could be translated as “May the Wind Be Gentle”—from Mozart’s Così fan tutte, which could be translated as “It Happens to Everyone.” Schlesinger described “Soave sia il vento” as being about waving goodbye. Hands waving goodbye.
Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray release of Sunday Bloody Sunday allows the film to reach a generation of viewers (this writer among them) for the first time, many of whom will know Schlesinger primarily as the director of such seminal British New Wave films as Billy Liar (1963) and Darling (1965), and, most especially, for Midnight Cowboy (1969), that paragon of envelope-pushing, New Hollywood mainstream radicalism. Considerably quieter than Cowboy, Sunday is nonetheless far more radical, in part because it pushes nothing. Daniel (a character explicitly modelled after Schlesinger) is gay, comfortably settled into a semi-closeted, upper-middle class life; he’s also an observant Jew, a well-liked physician, and protective of his close relationship with his family. Alex is a tough, smart professional, a divorcée, a child of the Second World War and of England’s old Establishment. She’s also perfectly aware of her own vulnerabilities, careful about exposing her emotions, a bit of a slob—there’s a terrific fade to black on her rubbing spilled cigarette ashes into what looks like a pricey rug—and accustomed to a life of impermanent satisfactions. Bob is bisexual, non-monogamous, and strict about the terms under which he’s willing to engage in intimacy; he’s rather charmless and not extraordinarily handsome—his youth and confidence alone constitute his allure. Nothing about these characters’ lives is sensationalized, no scene strains for shock; an early scene in which Daniel and Bob kiss couldn’t be more ordinary or relaxed, although a half-dozen commentators featured in Criterion’s superlative supplements attest to the fact that the kiss was scandalous in its time, all the more so perhaps because both Finch and Head were heterosexual.
Sunday Bloody Sunday brims with peripheral sociological detail: the headlines and radio reports addressing Britain’s economic crisis; the outrageous permissiveness of parents, with small children running rampant and even smoking weed; the dazed, weary-looking hippies stumbling through a swung-out London’s streets or queuing up, scripts in hand, at the late-night drugstore. Social context was enormously important to Schlesinger given his documentarian’s faith in realism, but the film never once attempts to coax some sort of facile connection between its foreground and background. If anything, our three central characters seem glibly indifferent to the general air of economic gloom: Alex even quits a perfectly good job, though the scene in which she dines with her parents in their lavish home hints at why she’s able to indulge such caprices without concern over diminished financial security. The world of Sunday Bloody Sunday feels as complete and real as it does because Schlesinger doesn’t force equations between the micro and the macro. The story of Daniel, Alex and Bob and their overlapping love lives resonates as intensely as it does because, while its details are grounded in the cultural specifics of its time and place, its essence—the sense that love is too often fleeting, and we must decide whether something is better than nothing—is timeless.
Captivating while remaining unvarying in tone and pace, acted with seamless naturalism and attention to detail, elegantly photographed (by Billy Williams), edited (by Richard Marden) and designed (by Luciana Arrighi, who seems to have been unable to place a single object in a room that doesn’t feel true to the film’s characters), Sunday Bloody Sunday seems to me flawless. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t take risks even within its own set of conventions. The final scene, conceived by Gilliat and finessed by Schlesinger and Finch, tosses us a formal curveball, probably inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Passion of Anna (1969). It finds Daniel, in his apparent solitude, breaking the fourth wall to address the camera, offering a closing soliloquy on the subject of acceptance. He tries to find the right term to apply to what he shared with Bob, ultimately settling on “We were something.” It was what it was, and, despite its deficiencies, what it was was singular.