Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) - John Schlesinger

At it’s heart Sunday Bloody Sunday is a simple enough film. Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson) is a divorcee who’s sleeping with young designer Bob Elkin (Murray Head). The thing is Bob is also having it away with Dr. Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch), and that’s about the long and short of it. Being British and early 70s this could so easily have ended up being a seedy exploitation flick aimed solely at the dirty mac brigade, or maybe even a Robin Askwith wink to the camera trouser dropper. That it isn’t anything like those and actually one of the best dramas of the early 70s is why we are still watching and talking about it. Directed and conceived by John Schlesinger, arguably the greatest of the British New Wave directors, Sunday Bloody Sunday is a glimpse into a week or so of the lives of the above three characters. There’s no massive story arc, or bombshell ending (although the ending is one of the best you’ll ever see). Nothing too dramatic happens, Alex knows about Daniel and vice versa so there’s very little drama to be mined from the usual love triangle situation of secrets coming to the fore during the films running time.

So why is this such a great film then? Well for starters Schlesinger treats all his characters with dignity. Daniel Hirsh is a homosexual, that is simply accepted as fact and not dwelt on any more than the fact that he’s male or a doctor. There isn’t much nudity, Schlesinger returns again and again to the image of hands gripping the naked flesh of a back rather than showing any full on rumpy pumpy. The real triumph though is just how well written the core trio are. Based on a similar ménage à trois from his own life, Schlesinger was able to put a lot of himself into the film, since just like Daniel Hirsh he was a Jew and gay.

All three leads are irreplaceable once witnessed in their roles, Peter Finch in particular is just astounding. Watch his on fire role in Network to get an idea of the sort of range he has. Glenda Jackson wasn’t even the first choice for the role of Alex - Vanessa Redgrave turned down the part after reading the script that had been written with her in mind. As I say though it’s hard to imagine anyone else as Alex now.

By this point in his career Schlesinger was at the height of his game, Darling and Far from the Madding Crowd had both been hugely successful and he’d skipped across the pond to make Midnight Cowboy, which was not only a success but also defined a moment in time for a whole generation as much as Easy Rider or Woodstock did. So it was a pleasant surprise not only for him to return home, but to also use his clout to get something as small and difficult to sell as Sunday Bloody Sunday off the ground. Schlesinger brings little touches that others probably wouldn’t, such as the daydreams that Alex slips in and out of during the course of the film, which is otherwise filmed quite naturalistically.

It’s very much a film of it’s time, some of Glenda Jackson’s sexiness might be lost on a todays audience due to her ghastly haircut for instance. But ultimately the theme that people fall for the wrong people and often fall for them quite heavily is something that will resonate with generation after generation. Schlesinger made films about people on the margins of society throughout his career, and this film is no exception. Without a doubt both this and Billy Liar are his masterpieces, and this is from a director that made Marathon Man, Darling, Midnight Cowboy and A Kind of Loving. It’s that good. Plus you'll get to see a young Daniel Day-Lewis in his first screen appearance scratching the side of a car with a broken bottle. You know what to do.

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