Schlesinger grows up

A shot from the bar mitzvah sequence in John Schlesinger’s triangular love story Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), in which a mild-mannered, middle-aged physician (Peter Finch) and a discontented employment specialist (Glenda Jackson) share a male lover (Murray Head).  The significance of the film, noted in the documentary The Celluloid Closet (1996), lies in its remarkably un-hysterical depiction of gay and bisexual love.  The moments of romantic affection between Finch and Head are commendably casual, and real.  All three main characters—who even several years earlier would have no doubt faced fatal consequences for their sexual choices—make it to the end of the film alive and more or less unscathed.  It is a queer romance purged of any sordidness, titillation, or shame; on the contrary, what’s a bit nauseating about the film is its tastefulness.  
In the 1960s Schlesinger was a key player in the so-called British New Wave, a kind of cinematic parallel to the “angry young man” school of 1950s British drama.  He made such mod, charmingly anarchic films as Billy Liar (1963) and Darling (1965), both making excellent use of then-newcomer Julie Christie.  Even his move to Hollywood to make Midnight Cowboy (1969) could hardly be considered a sell-out: the film, which received an X rating, retained a sense of daring in its attempt to tell a kind of love story (albeit an unconsummated one) between two lowlife hustlers (Jon Voigt and Dustin Hoffman) and a sense of humor in scenes that parodied Warhol and the New York underground scene.  So Sunday Bloody Sunday feels like something of a let-down—literally a sinking-down or settling-down into respectability.  It speaks in hushed tones.  For music, it gravitates toward a Mozart trio from Cosi fan Tutti, an admittedly gorgeous piece, but one indicative of the upper-middle class milieu that Schlesinger has come to occupy.  A few subversive moments aside (there’s a fairly jaw-dropping scene early on in which, while babysitting, Jackson and Head smoke pot along with their pre-pubescent charges), the film swims through a fairly uneventful, slightly dull liberal bourgeois world.  The violent escapist fantasy sequences dreamed up by the young hero in Billy Liar have been replaced by flashbacks to the childhoods of this film’s grown-up characters.  Like Finch’s Dr. Hirsh, Schlesinger here seems sage and reflective, mature, the man thinking back to his lost youth as opposed to the boy who hadn’t yet become a man.  Sunday Bloody Sunday is a fine film, but one wishes that there were still something of the boy left in Schlesinger. 

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