John Schlesinger’s follow-up to his revered classic Midnight Cowboy, 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday is a preternaturally mature, sober and penetrating look at sex and romance. Like Midnight Cowboy and Billy Liar, the film does dabble in flights of fantasy — some of the film’s most striking scenes come during moments of characters’ fractured memories reasserting themselves — but mostly, is a remarkably grounded movie. The observation is a tired one, but this is the kind of film for adults that major studios are scarcely interested in making anymore.
Judging from the title and the plot synopsis — Peter Finch’s middle-aged doctor and Glenda Jackson’s 30ish divorcée share a young artist lover (Murray Head), a fact they discover through their shared answering service — one is led to expect emotional fireworks and a build-up to a shattering conclusion. Titles count down the days of the week leading up to the titular Sunday, but Schlesinger’s approach to the material subverts expectations. His characters behave like human beings, not cinematic short fuses whose sole purpose is to explode at the appropriate climactic moment.
Finch and Jackson are both superb as Dr. Daniel Hirsh and Alex Greville, each offering up a master class in disappointment, restless longing and deferred expectations. One could interpret their respective flings with Head’s Bob Elkin as mere diversions, and though it’s likely they started that way, by the time we come upon them in the film, each has an entwining emotional bond they’re not really ready to own up to. Although the inexperienced Head isn’t the most compelling screen presence, critic Penelope Gilliatt’s screenplay (her contributions are somewhat disputed) imbues even him with a surprising amount of nuance.
As Daniel and Alex’s lives spin ever closer to one another, purely through association, their emotional fragility becomes even more evident. Schlesinger’s wry, slightly bemused conclusion doesn’t undercut those feelings. He acknowledges their reality while simultaneously nodding toward a kind of cosmic detachment. Your world may be falling apart, but the world in general just keeps on spinning.
The Blu-ray Disc
Sunday Bloody Sunday is presented in 1080p high definition in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The film looks truly fantastic, presenting a richly saturated, nicely detailed and consistently sharp and clear image. The transfer has a nice film-like texture with a clean, unadulterated grain structure. While the color scheme is drab and earthy, the tones are still vivid, and damage is limited to a few minor speckles here and there. The uncompressed monaural audio is pretty impeccable, presenting both voices and music with near-perfect clarity.
Criterion includes a number of interviews among the supplements, including an archival audio interview with the late Schlesinger, illustrated with photos and clips. New interviews include brief segments with Head, director of photography Billy Williams, production designer Lucian Arrighi, author William J. Mann and photographer and Schlesinger’s longtime partner Michael Childers. The disc also includes the theatrical trailer. Included in the package is a booklet with an essay by Ian Buruma and a reprint of a Gilliatt article on the conception of the film.
The Bottom Line
A fascinating, mature look at romantic entanglement, John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday belongs next to his better-known works, and Criterion’s Blu-ray edition offers a superlative image.