Far be it from me to argue the artistic merits of films selected for release by The Criterion Collection. However, while I generally find something of interest in any of their titles, my subjective appreciation varies. On the low end of that scale, for me personally, is the 1971 drama Sunday Bloody Sunday. I always wonder what I’m missing when I simply don’t connect with a Criterion title, especially one as lavishly praised as this. Luckily, the well-produced supplemental materials are a great help in that department.
John Schlesinger chose to direct Sunday Bloody Sunday as the follow-up to his controversial Academy Award winner, Midnight Cowboy (1969). The film tells the story of a love triangle involving Bob (Murray Head), a man who splits his time between a girlfriend, Alex (Glenda Jackson), and a boyfriend, Dr. Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch). Both Alex and Dr. Hirsh know Bob is going back and forth between them. Each of them is convinced their relationship can work, despite Bob’s split affections. Schlesinger is quite matter-of-fact in his presentation of this scenario. While that might not seem especially noteworthy to today’s younger audiences, it was quite progressive for its time.
Screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt presents a fascinating
relationship dynamic and was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for Best
Original Screenplay. The problem is that the interaction amongst the characters
is too ordinary. Schlesinger strives very hard for realism. Not only does he
achieve it, his film takes on the mundane dreariness of real life (which, I
suppose, was the intention). There are a few unpleasant surprises along the
Alex accepts the job of babysitting the children of an out-of-town couple. For the duration of the couple’s absence, she lives with them at their house, watching not only the children but also the family dog. Bob pays regular visits. The children are a handful, at one point these prepubescent kids share a joint (forget the bisexual love triangle, this is the most shocking moment in the film). Later, the poor dog is struck by a truck and killed instantly. No one seems to care (except the irate truck driver, who was not at fault). What does it say about my reaction to the film that I wished it was one of the little brats who bought the farm, rather than the canine?
Sunday Bloody Sunday defines the terms “slice of life.” I took an intense disliking to the film. Its characters are wholly unlikable and unsympathetic. Their interactions are tedious. By the film’s conclusion, I found myself caring exactly zero percent about whether Bob would choose to stay with Alex or Daniel (or neither). Again, I can appreciate that the film broke new ground for portraying non-mainstream romantic relationships in a non-sensationalistic way. But beyond that, I find it hard to understand why Schlesinger believed these folks were worth spending 110 minutes of time on.
Criterion has done right by Billy Williams’ cinematography with a beautiful 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer. Colors are natural, detail is strong, and the visible grain ensures a very film-like appearance. Sunday Bloody Sunday retains the look of its period, without any dirt, scratches, or other anomalies. As for the audio, the 1.0 mono soundtrack is also true to the film’s era. Dialogue is clear and the track is free of distortion. Happily, there are no problems to report with Criterion’s audio/visual presentation.
Supplemental features are fairly extensive. There are new video interviews with cast member Murray Head, cinematographer Billy Williams, production designer Luciana Arrighi, and Schlesinger’s partner Michael Childers. These total about 37 minutes and provide a good deal of background about the film. There’s also a vintage audio interview with the late Schlesinger. Perhaps best of all is the video interview with Schlesinger biographer William J. Mann. Over the course of about 23 minutes, Mann details the making of Sunday Bloody Sunday from a less sentimental viewpoint than some of the interviewees who were directly connected to the film. As is usually the case with Criterion, the included booklet is packed with worthwhile essays.
While I didn’t connect with Sunday Bloody Sunday in any meaningful way, I applaud Criterion for choosing to release it. It is a film of historical importance and the naturalistic performances, particularly by Glenda Jackson, are worth seeing.