“Mature” is the adjective most strongly associated with Sunday Bloody Sunday, John Schlesinger’s 1971 drama about a bisexual love triangle between older professionals, a man and a woman, sharing a callow young male lover. And mature it remains, a thoughtful consideration of provocative materials that’s more interested in documenting the emotional fallout from an untenable situation than flaunting its liberated sexuality. While the subject matter did raise a few hackles—when the two men kiss early in the film, audiences were reportedly vocal—Schlesinger and his screenwriter, New Yorker film critic Penelope Gilliatt, were clearly determined not to raise temperatures. They were making a personal film about alienation and heartbreak, suffused with detail about the changing face of upper-crust London in the early ’70s, and to hell with the politics of it. For better or worse, they would be taking the high road.
Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch are superb as the compromised lonely-hearts who agree to an arrangement that’s certain to dissatisfy them both, but beats any foreseeable alternative. Drawing from his own experiences, Schlesinger casts Finch as a Jewish doctor who quietly and discreetly welcomes Murray Head, a young artist, into his bed whenever he’s granted the privilege. Neither he nor Jackson, a divorcee in her 30s, are openly anguished or engaged in some fierce romantic rivalry—in fact, they’re aware of each other and exchange pleasantries in the one scene where they interact. Head scuttles between them, mostly on schedule and occasionally on impulse, but he doesn’t have much of an internal life. He’s a cipher, that obscure object of desire.
The emphasis on maturity in Sunday Bloody Sunday—a stuffy repression present not only in the characters’ lives, but in the film itself—has a stifling effect that’s not entirely in Schlesinger’s favor. In sharp contrast to the emotional epiphanies of the director’s previous effort, Midnight Cowboy, Sunday Bloody Sunday takes on a dreary, pessimistic, London-gray mood that’s reflected in the title. Schlesinger gets caught up in small but fascinating glimpses of an evolving culture, from a scene where kids smoke up their parents’ pot stash to a working mother leaving breast milk in a mason jar in the refrigerator. And he hits the theme of miscommunication too hard by making the crossed wires of Finch and Jackson’s shared messaging service a character in itself. What resonates in Sunday Bloody Sunday are the scenes when Schlesinger and Gilliatt focus more simply on the indignities of the heart, those forces that lead otherwise sane people to veer off into emotional dead ends. Too often, its adultness makes it seem as remote as the bed-hopping artiste at the center of this mess.
Key features: The late Schlesinger left behind an audio interview that’s added to new interviews with Head and the film’s production designer and cinematographer. Schlesinger biographer William J. Mann offers the keenest insights into the man and his work, but this is otherwise a slim, disappointing package.