The kiss was the killer. Peter Finch’s character, who shares a much younger (male) lover with Glenda Jackson’s character, kisses said lover (Murray Head) on the mouth. In close-up.
The kiss is not particularly passionate—none of the sex in the film is passionate. In fact, this is my complaint about “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” The kiss shows that the two men are comfortable together as lovers, which was shocking to film audiences in 1971. But we’re supposed to believe that Finch’s character is mad about the boy, or that Jackson’s character is mad about the boy.
They aren’t. Finch got mad as hell in “Network.” Mad enough to win an Oscar. Here he’s just mildly disgruntled, even when his lover fails to call, or walks out on him during a party, or abandons him to go off to New York. “People say to me, ‘he never made you happy.’ And I say, ‘but I am happy. Apart from missing him,” Finch tells us at the end of the picture, in a poignant little monologue. “We were something,” he concludes. Well, yes. But what, exactly?
As for Jackson, she’s nothing like the firebrand she played in “Women in Love.” Sure, she’s involved in a love triangle, but she’s like a long-suffering wife who puts up with her husband’s philandering for the sake of appearances. I guess she doesn’t want to appear like the lonely divorcée she is—although the way she drifts into bed with one of her clients, a married man who has come to her agency looking for a job, suggests otherwise. She’s not particularly interested in sex with this guy, either.
I liked both Finch and Jackson. I liked the cinéma vérité feel of the picture, which comes across in Penelope Gilliat’s dialogue and John Schlesinger’s direction. It just says something that, minus the shock effect of that kiss, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” presents a thoroughly domesticated treatment of illicit love.