1971 / Best Director

Film #589: Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

Just like Joseph L Makiewicz, John Schlesinger is a director whose films have previously been covered on the blog as his work has garnered a couple of Best Picture nominations. Most notably Schlesinger won the Best Director award for his work on the 1969 Best Picture winner Midnight Cowboy; one of my personal favourite films ever to win the award. Schlesigner followed up Midnight Cowboy with a film that saw him return to his native England to explore the themes of sexuality that had run throughout his Best Picture winner. However, despite enjoying Midnight Cowboy immensely, I was left a little cold by Sunday Bloody Sunday and I’m going to try and explain why.

Firstly I think the lack of a vibrant setting made everything feel a little damp with events moving to the leafy suburbs of England, Sunday Bloody Sunday lacked the intensity of Midnight Cowboy’s New York locales. The characters weren’t as sympathetic as Joe and Rizzo either with Schlesinger’s film focusing on two upper class middle-aged protagonists who were both linked by an answering service and a lover. The characters in question are recently-divorced recruitment consultant Alex and Jewish family doctor Daniel who are respectively played by Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch. Early on we learn that both Alex and Daniel use an answering service to receive their messages and are both most interested when they hear from sculptor Bob Elkin. Elkin is carrying on an affair with Alex and Daniel, flitting between each other when the mood takes him, however they each care about him so much that they are willing to put up with sharing his love. The film takes place over the course of a number of days as Schlesinger and screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt demonstrate the deep feelings that Alex and Daniel have for Bob whilst also making us ponder whether he has the same affection for either of them. Indeed, he does ponder the idea of making things more serious with both of them as he offers to move in with Alex and later to holiday in Italy with Daniel. However ultimately Bob decides to move to America to open his own gallery leaving both of his lovers feeling despondent but there is a sense of hope that they’ll both be able to move on with their lives.

I feel another of my issues with Sunday Bloody Sunday is that nothing particularly happens, you see Bob spend time with Daniel and Alex but there are no big plot points to talk of. Indeed, I feel the film is at its best when exploring the background of both of these characters as they interact with their parents. There’s an interesting scene early on when Alex confronts her parents at the dinner table about their lack of communication whilst later we see the strained relationship Daniel has with his father when he attends his nephew’s Bar Mitzvah. However too much of the film is just spending time with characters who I never really warmed too. I do believe as well that the film has dated quite a bit in the last forty-five years which I think is to be expected but then I look at that year’s Best Picture winner The French Connection which hasn’t aged at all. In the film’s favour, I think it’s quite a brave movie certainly in it’s depiction of Daniel; a gay man who isn’t disgusted by his feelings towards other men and instead enjoys his life most when he’s spending time with Bob. I do think that’s the reason why Sunday Bloody Sunday received a surprising four Oscar nominations, all in major categories, as a recognition of Schlesinger’s bravery to tell this story in the first place. In terms of Schlesinger’s direction, the only visual elements of the movie I enjoyed were the framing device of the answering service which was oddly operated by Bessie Love; star of the second ever Best Picture winner The Broadway Melody.

If there’s one element of Sunday Bloody Sunday that lifted it then it was the two lead performances from the always reliable Finch and Jackson. Finch was especially great at being utterly believable as this lonely doctor whose live was lit up by his young lover and his screen presence made you want to spend more time with the character. Jackson, who had just won the Best Actress Oscar the year before, was similarly great as another lonely soul who was just looking to find true love. One of the film’s boldest moves was to have Alex and Daniel barely interact during the entire film, even though they knew each of each other’s existence, even sharing mutual friends. However, I think this move was a foolish one as it deprived us from seeing more of Finch and Jackson on screen together as I found their characters’ sole interaction to be one of the film’s few highlights. Had Sunday Bloody Sunday been nominated for Best Picture then it would most likely have replaced the long-winded costume drama Nicholas and Alexandra. I do feel that Sunday Bloody Sunday was certainly more of a brave movie that the Russian Tsar movie which felt dated even by 1971 standards. In fact it’s a film that seems to sit better alongside that year’s nominees which included A Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show as, despite its flaws, it’s still a film that was ahead of its time in terms of its narrative.

Whilst I’m looking forward to watching more Schlesinger movies in the future, I was slightly disappointed by Sunday Bloody Sunday; a film I feel has dated badly and is quite as daring as it would’ve been if I was watching it in the 1970s. Although Jackson and Finch both deserved their Oscar nods, there was nothing in Sunday Bloody Sunday that echoed the brilliance of either Midnight Cowboy or Schlesinger’s other Best Picture nominated movie; Darling.

Next time we catch-up with Glenda Jackson once again as she works with another British director in the role that earned her her first Best Actress Oscar.

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