While I can easily recognize the film’s intelligence, relevance, and sensitivity, I’ve never been able to penetrate Sunday Bloody Sunday. The problem is not the story, which depicts the strained civility of three people participating in an unusual romantic triangle. What blocks me is the picture’s style, which I find to be cold, opaque, and pretentious. Mine is clearly a minority opinion, however, since the picture received accolades including four Oscar nominations and is now considered one of director John Schlesinger’s crowning achievements.
In any event, the movie, which is set in England, opens by introducing viewers to Dr. Daniel Hirsh, a middle-aged man who puts on a good show of being contented but clearly hides layers of internal anguish. Next, the movie introduces freespirited couple Alexandra Greville (Glenda Jackson) and Bob Elkin (Murray Head). These two seem happy with each other, because Bob is a good surrogate dad to the kids Alex brought into the relationship from her failed marriage, and because the two share a robust physical relationship. Yet one day during an argument, Bob slips away from Alexandra for a tryst with his other lover—Daniel. Written by Penelope Gilliatt, who won numerous awards for her script, Sunday Bloody Sunday explores the odd dynamics of this three-way romance. Both Alexandra and Daniel are aware that they share a lover, but they tolerate Bob’s bed-hopping because they’re fragile people who consider themselves undeserving of love. Alexandra’s psychological burdens include self-esteem problems inflicted by strict parents, as well as lingering trauma from growing up during the horrors of World War II. Concurrently, Daniel wrestles with the interrelated issues of Jewish guilt and self-denial because he refuses to tell his family that he’s gay.
Gilliatt, Schlesinger, and the actors go deep into characterization, so it’s not hard to understand why partisans of Sunday Bloody Sunday regard the film so highly. Among other things, Schlesinger strives for a delicate synthesis of naturalism and stylization—he probes scenes with his camera to find oblique angles, and yet he coaches his actors to deliver lines loosely and to occupy spaces comfortably. Speaking of the actors, the performances in Sunday Bloody Sunday occur on vastly different levels, probably by design. Finch is closed and tight, forcing viewers to peer through his façade for glimmers of truth. Head is a cipher, putting across the idea that his character is a handsome canvas onto which others project their desires. And Jackson is an open wound, crying and laughing and snapping as her already taut emotions are strained past their limits. In many ways, she steals the show, even though Finch took a considerable risk by playing a gay character at a time when onscreen homosexuality was treated with kid gloves.
Nonetheless, it seems that every admirable element in Sunday Bloody Sunday is matched by a questionable flourish. The camerawork is intrusive, the dialogue is cryptic, the editing is distractingly arty, and the tone is so restrained as to create occasional pockets of tedium. Furthermore, the way that flashbacks and supporting characters are integrated into the story strikes me as contrived and mechanical. Even more egregiously, the picture ends with a direct address to camera that comes out of nowhere, stylistically speaking. I wish I could see the transcendent character study that others perceive when they watch Sunday Bloody Sunday, but perhaps my eyesight isn’t good enough.
Sunday Bloody Sunday: FUNKY