Monday, 16 November 2015

No. 99 - Sexual Boundaries - SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (1971)


After his superb yet bleak MIDNIGHT COWBOY, director John Schlesinger tackled gay characters again, but this time showed them absorbed more into mainstream middle-class society rather than portraying a marginalised seedy subculture as in the previous film. This makes SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY ahead of its time as the film deals not with homosexual relationships as an overt right-on crusade but as simply a part of accepted modernity and is all the more refreshing for it.

The story is a love triangle; at its centre is Bob, a young good-looking free-wheeling conceptual artist of businessmen’s stress relief office toys (Murray Head, notable later also for starring in the musical CHESS). He has simultaneous love affairs with Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), a frustrated recruitment consultant as well as Daniel Hirsch, a Jewish G.P. For Bob, these affairs are fun stopping-off points in his wind-swept life, whereas to his older lovers, the relationship has more meaning. Both Daniel and Alex want more than he is prepared to give and in their own way demonstrate a poignant yearning for greater substance.

Alex spends a weekend with Bob house-sitting for the children of annoyingly ultra-liberal friends, the kind who call their Rottweiler ‘Kenyatta’ and allow their kids to run amok without traditional barriers. At one point their eldest little girl asks them: “Are you bourgeois?” whilst an even younger son (who can’t be more than six) sits on their bed smoking a doobie he’s pilfered from his dad’s stash. The cut-glass accents make this very middle-class world hard to relate to as well, but Jackson subtly conveys her need in a way that is universal as Bob vanishes to see Daniel. She can’t bring herself to say her competitor’s name. Bob spends the afternoon in a tryst with Daniel, all handled with admirable matter-of-fact ease including a full-mouthed kiss which must still have been rare on screen at this time.

On Bob’s return to fix a power cut, Alex seethes with barely-suppressed jealousy: “Perhaps you’re spreading yourself a little thin”. When the family dog is accidentally run over in the street, his death triggers a burst of remembered separation anxiety in Alex from when her father left the house in war-time without his gas-mask. She is a product of tough love by her parents, a wealthy but remote couple (Peggy Ashcroft and Maurice Denham). Her mother brusquely condemns her for not settling down, pessimistically summing up life as a dull enforced endurance of broken dreams: “There is no ‘whole thing’. You have to make it work”

Daniel also struggles with the knowledge that he is sharing his lover. There is a nice wordless sequence where both he and Alex consecutively drive past Bob’s flat, glancing up longingly at his window before passing by. Daniel has a history of troublesome lovers. There’s a brief sequence reuniting him with Jon Finch (sadly to be under-used in the 1970s) as a badly Glaswegian-accented thieving bit of rough trade. His patients present him with cases that cause him to reflect on the small emotional scraps he subsists on. He attempts to cheer up June Brown, (later to find fame as hard-bitten Dot Cotton in EASTENDERS) as she recounts her life’s sexless quiet desperation. “People can manage on very little” he tells the family of a patient of his at death’s door in hospital. Even civilised dinner parties reveal the cracks of others’ lives when a friend couple argue during a games night about the husband’s attention paid to their au pair. Daniel at least gains solace from the structure (or stricture) of his Jewish faith when he attends a Barmitzvah – a scene featuring some soaringly beautiful canto singing.

Finally, Alex and Daniel meet when Bob inevitably leaves for New York. They not only have their young lover in common – they also realise that each must move on instead of trying to cling to this youthful free spirit.

The three performances give SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY the engaging quality of many of its scenes. Head has the easier time of it but plays a maddening light elusiveness naturally. The heavy lifting is done by Finch and Jackson who both suffer with compelling gravity. Jackson has an unusual sex appeal that’s hard to define but has directness and sensitivity that deservedly helped her Academy Awards either side of this film in both drama and comedy. Finch conveys a subtler storm of anxiety than his riveting Howard Beale in NETWORK (1976) yet earns our sympathy, particularly in a final scene that breaks the fourth wall as a delicate confessional to camera. He echoes the film’s running theme of coping with ‘half a loaf’ of a relationship instead of nothing and is at last honest with himself and resigned about his needs: “All my life I’ve been looking for someone courageous, resourceful. He’s not it…but something”. This sequence has the power of Dysart’s end speech in EQUUS andeven more powerful for its understatement.

SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY is a rare film about permissive sexuality that achieves as much as an angry polemic arguing the case for acceptance by assuming we’re already in a society unsurprised by homosexual relationships, and focuses more on the vulnerabilities that unite us all regardless of orientation...

1 comment: