Peter Finch Was Probably the Greatest Actor of All Time, and ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ Proves Why

Was Peter Finch the greatest actor of all time? If he was, then Sunday Bloody Sunday could very well make a case for this. Finch vanishes into the skin of doctor Daniel Hirsh, an English practitioner, having an affair with Bob Elkin (Murray Head), a free spirited young artist who’s also having an affair with recruitment consultant Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson). But fear not, Sunday Bloody Sunday is in no way as sensationalist as its premise might promise, instead it remains a groundbreaking work that dissects the nature of love.

The film was John Schlesinger’s first project after the Oscar winning box office phenomenon Midnight Cowboy, which had shocked audiences with its depiction of sex and life in New York City. It might’ve seemed to some that Schlesinger was merely interested in pushing boundaries when it came to onscreen nudity and his nonchalant representations of sex; however, the truth is that the director was more interested in exploring the many layers of humanity, but unlike most of his contemporaries, wasn’t afraid to remind audiences that they were sexual beings and that sex, even if rarely featured onscreen, was essential to making them who they were.

Schlesinger teamed up with movie critic Penelope Gilliatt to draft the screenplay for what is considered to be the best movie of his career. Gilliatt, who had been very harsh with Schlesinger’s previous films, was hired for her eloquence and intellectualism, which paired with the director’s humanist approach to directing actors made for a brilliant piece that finds a balance between the erudite and the universal.

Unlike many films which were once supposed to be revolutionary (including Midnight Cowboy), Sunday Bloody Sunday hasn’t really aged, because it treats its “issues” like non-issues. See, for example, how natural Schlesinger makes the kiss between Finch and Head, that challenged censors and audiences alike, back when the film was made. The way in which the director sets the scene makes for something that’s intimate (because we are intruding in the privacy of the characters’ homes) and ridiculously quotidian (there are no stylistic flourishes; no key music, no dazzling camera moves, no sensationalist editing) what we get is just an affectionate exchange between two men.

Several modern filmmakers — especially those who deal with homosexuality in their works — would benefit from watching this movie, because it reminds the viewer that men who have sex with men are still regular human beings. They don’t necessarily have to be extravagant artists, damaged children or hermits. The beauty about doctor Hirsh is that he doesn’t wear his sexuality on his sleeve simply because it’s nobody’s business. In fact the movie concentrates so little on justifying its characters’ sexual choices that to keep on bringing them up feels like one’s insulting it.

Instead, it’s better to focus on how the movie smartly addresses our need to find love and a place where we feel safe. “Now tell me if you feel anything at all” asks doctor Hirsh to a patient right at the beginning of the film, and it seems as if the entire movie is meant to have him figure out the answer regarding his own life. Finch’s extraordinary ability to become one with the man he plays shines through in how he lights up when he discovers Bob’s in his bed after he returns from a particularly unpleasant social activity.

Equally impressive is Jackson, who gives Alex a sense of complete earthiness as she goes on about her daily life. She’s the kind of person who one would see on the street and wonder about her private life, the actress exudes a strange charisma that few onscreen personalities possessed. During one scene where Alex has dinner with her parents (her mother is played by the great Dame Peggy Ashcroft) she displays a wonderful sense of economy when her mother asks how is her boyfriend, to which she replies “you wouldn’t like his hair”.

What’s most surprising about Sunday Bloody Sunday is that Finch and Jackson only share one scene together, yet it’s the power of the performances that carries the entire film. The stories of Alex and Daniel remind us that the degrees of separation between us and others don’t always rely on things as unreliable as fate.

The Criterion Collection has beautifully restored the film and the DVD edition boasts a gorgeous transfer, as well as an array of extras which include the theatrical trailer, a superb interview with Schlesinger biographer William J. Mann (his eloquence makes a making-of documentary completely unnecessary) and various other interviews with Murray Head, production designer Luciana Arrighi and a moving one on one with photographer Michael Childers, who was Schlesinger’s partner until the time of his death in 1993. Listening to him talk about his admiration for the late director not only feels rather personal, it also makes us think that Schlesinger might as well be one of the most underrated directors who ever lived.

RATING 7 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.