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Frank Sidebottom The Home of the Retrospective


A nostalgic (but not blindly nostalgic) look back at some cult and classic movies. Are they worth checking out once you take off the rose-tinted glasses? Find out in this retrospective section.

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) directed by John Schlesinger

What’s it about?

Murray Head plays Bob Elkin, a bisexual physical artist living in London who vacillates between two lovers. One is Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch), a Jewish doctor. The other is Alex Grenville (Glenda Jackson), a career woman. Sunday Bloody Sunday follows the course of their love triangle and the various frictions that arise, be they from the disparate backgrounds between bohemian Bob and the more respectable Daniel and Alex, or from the latter two not having the “whole thing” from the fickle former.

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Why is it significant?

Sunday Bloody Sunday marked director John Schlesinger’s return to his native England after cracking America with the Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy (1969). It was notable in its day for portraying an explicitly homosexual relationship in a manner which was neither exploitative nor carried any real agenda. It was nominated for a clutch of awards, including 4 Oscars, 2 Golden Globes and 8 BAFTAs. It also won one of the Golden Globes (for Best English Foreign-Language Film) and five of the BAFTAs (for Best Film, Best Direction, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Leading Role and Best Editing).

It's not to be confused with the U2 song Sunday Bloody Sunday which is based around the 1972 "Bloody Sunday" massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland.

How does it hold up?

Sunday Bloody Sunday poster

On paper, Sunday Bloody Sunday seems very much a standard love triangle melodrama. However, once you look more deeply into it (or more to the point, pay some attention while watching it) it is clear that it is a considerably more substantial affair. John Schlesinger’s direction has an almost giddy fascination in the distinctively separate worlds that each of these three people inhabit, and the resultant ways in which it feeds their relationships. On a microcosmic level, it is also very much informed by the state of Britain at the time in which it was made.

The early 1970s were a period when the bubble of naive optimism that encapsulated the 1960s was giving way to a jaded cynicism and burgeoning economic troubles - but there was still a younger generation hanging on, frazzling their brains with pot and bizarre artistic indulgences. At the same time there was an older generation for whom the hippie scene went over their heads and were stuck in a rut of conservative traditionalism. Sunday Bloody Sunday is a meeting of all of these threads of British life in this period, both in the worlds of these different characters and in the background details that Schlesinger passes over in his often dialogue-free scenes.

Alex is an archetypal London career woman, too busy to decorate her flat properly, wash the dishes or boil the kettle (she rushes a coffee by making it with hot water from the kitchen tap). Daniel is a pillar of the community living in an upmarket London townhouse where he is greeted by his bowler-hatted neighbour as he goes to his doorstep to collect his Sunday Times. However, round the back he gazes at the futuristic art installation created by his male lover.

Bob is very much the manifestation of their needs to escape the British upper middle class straitjacket, and yet paradoxically a source of friction as he further tests their comfort zones. He lives in a family home where the kids steal reefers from their parents, and while the time away via trips out to the park with exhilarating home-made kite flying sessions. However, the whirlwind of colourful chaos surrounding Bob becomes a sticking point for both of his lovers as much as it sucks them in. In particular, there is a scene when one of Bob’s younger siblings is nearly knocked down chasing her dog across the road (and the dog itself is killed) resulting in Alex’s instincts for order kicking in as she reprimands the shaken child.

The characters of Daniel and Alex are deepened by flashbacks from their younger days which serve to further anchor their sense of responsibility in the face of Bob’s thrilling freewheeling. The former recollects his own Bar Mitzvah while attending one in the present - we see from his own POV the expectant faces of the older members of the congregation bearing down on him, silently demanding big things from this little boy. For Alex, it is a flashback to WWII with her frantically pursuing her own father through soldier-filled streets when she sees he has forgotten his gas mask.

Peter Finch, Murray Head and Glenda Jackson in a love triangle

The performances are first rate. Glenda Jackson veers convincingly from uptight to evident delight at the sexual release provided by Bob, and then back again when his attitude frustrates her. Peter Finch puts on a proper and reassuring front as the community GP, but then unleashes his bitchiest venom towards his clueless patients in the manner of a blowing kettle to Bob when he’s no longer on the phone. Murray Head basically plays an arrogant little cad who is fully aware of the love both feel in him, but at the same time this stems from a naivety as he doesn’t seem to realise both of them are more complex individuals then his carefree mentality can ever conceive. There is a sense of humour in the performances and dialogue that prevents the ups and downs of the drama from being overly heavy going.

On the whole it’s a fine and imaginatively made movie, if a little overlong.

Runtime: 110 mins

Dir: John Schlesinger

Script: Penelope Gilliatt, Ken Levison, David Sherwin

Starring: Peter Finch, Glenda Jackson, Murray Head, Peggy Ashcroft, Maurice Denham, Tony Britton, Jon Finch

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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