I admit that while watching “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1971) I did, on a few occasions, shout “Damned hippies!” Or at least I thought it. Turn on and tune in, man, but if you’re going to let your seven year old smoke pot then you oughtta know he’s going to grow up with complete contempt for you and vote for Thatcher out of sheer spite.

Of course, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is not at all a movie about hippies, though it is very much a film anchored to a specific place and time, which might lead some viewers to think of it as “dated” but surely its timely quality should be seen as a strength. Director John Schlesinger and cinematographer Billy Williams imbue the film with a documentary-like quality not uncommon to British films of the era, but still remarkable for its understated, pragmatic quality: this is London 1970 in all its gray, grubby glory, a historic space in transition, shared by the longhairs and the suits, all of whom are negotiating a grim economic downturn.

Schlesinger brings the same understated, pragmatic quality to the film’s subject, controversial in its time and which would still, unfortunately, grab headlines today. Alex (Glenda Jackson) is a middle-aged divorcee in love with a flighty young artist named Bob (Murray Head). Daniel (Peter Finch) is an older doctor who also happens to be in love with a flighty young artist named Bob (the same Murray Head). And what about Bob?

Bob is mostly in love with himself and values his freedom above all else. When Alex arrives to spend the weekend with him (and the pot-smoking brood of children belonging to their laissez-faire friends) Bob is delighted… for a few hours. Then he simply must scamper off to spend the afternoon with Daniel, leaving Alex miserable and Daniel delighted, until later in the evening when Bob switches back again, and we realize he has made everyone miserable except, perhaps, for himself. This time-share arrangement has going on for some time, but the film takes place when the tenuous situation is set to give. Alex and Daniel must decide if they can be satisfied with just some of Bob’s affection, and Bob must decide whether even giving away just a little is still too much of a sacrifice for him.

The only big deal about the relationship between Daniel and Bob is that Schlesinger didn’t make a big deal about it all; a spontaneous kiss in the hallway is nothing more than that. And nobody else in the film questions the relationship for a second. Alex’s objections involve only her desire to keep Bob completely to herself, not Bob’s choice of other partners. Critics embraced the film as well, making it another triumph for Schlesinger, following “Midnight Cowboy” (1969).

If there’s any sense in which the film does feel dated, it’s in Schlesinger’s use of elliptical editing and seemingly arbitrary digressions, all of which I have always associated with art-house directors of the time such as Nicolas Roeg, though Schlesinger was certainly no mere copy cat. I’m not sure the long pans across telephone circuitry (a quaint thing known as an “answering service” unites and divides the characters) or Alex’s flashbacks to childhood play as anything more than indulgent flourishes, but perhaps I simply find it too difficult to reconcile this dreamy, languorous style with the realistically-grounded settings,characters and subject matter.

Both Jackson and Finch are exceptional, of course. Whenever I watch Glenda Jackson, I always think “Now there’s a real woman” by which I mean not only that I have fallen for her (I have) but also that she creates an assured, fully fleshed-out persona wise beyond her years who at least provides the illusion of existing beyond the script. It’s as if Jackson is just sharing part of her character with us, knowing there’s no way the camera could ever fully contain her. Finch provides a quieter, resigned performance, perhaps because he his character is the one more willing to deal on Bob’s terms. Where Alex says that “Sometimes nothing is better than something,” Daniel states that he would prefer half a loaf to none. Whether he even winds up with that is another story.

Murray Head is a much less substantial presence, but in a way his weightlessness works. One of the mysteries of the film is also one of the abiding mysteries of life. Why do we fall in love with the people we fall in love with? It’s something you can’t explain to people who say, “You could do so much better” or “What do you see in that fool?” and the film leaves the attraction largely unexplained as well. But there’s never any doubt about how both Alex and Daniel feel. Try as they might to act so terribly sophisticated and understanding about everything, we’re always aware that they’re just acting. They are desperate for more than what they have, yet terrified even of losing that. We don’t like to share our favorite toys when we’re kids, and that never really changes.

The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The film has a cool palette heavy on blue, gray, and tan with few bright colors that really pop. This high-def transfer conveys a rich sense of variation even in this modest spectrum and the image detail is very sharp. The source print must have been preserved beautifully because there’s no sign of damage.

The linear PCM Mono track is crisp though not, of course, very dynamic. The lossless audio preserves the music in the film (heavy on the Mozart) surprisingly well in Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has only included a few short extras here.

“On ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’” (23 min.) is an interview with author William J. Mann (“Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger”) in which Mann discusses both the production and the release of the film. Mann certainly has plenty of knowledge, but he’s a little too insistent that the film is really about “the human condition” rather than a film specifically about, in part, a homosexual relationship. It’s OK for a film to be about something specific, and it’s not always a compliment to say that it’s really about something more general or universal. However, Mann has a lot to say about the writing of the film, clarifying just how much of a role Gilliat, who received sole official credit, really played after she and Schlesinger had a falling out midway through production.

The disc also includes an audio excerpt from John Schlesinger’s talk at the AFI on Apr 9, 1975 (13 min.) which touches briefly on a range of subjects.

The rest of the extras are new 2012 interviews conducted by Criterion: actor Murray Head (7 min.), cinematographer Billy Williams (13 min.), production designer Luciana Arrighi (9 min.) and photographer Michael Childers (7 min.) who was also Schlesinger’s partner.

The insert booklet includes an essay by cultural historian Ian Buruma and Penelope Gilliat’s lengthy introduction to the published version of the film’s screenplay.

Film Value:
Criterion hasn’t packed in a lot of extras, but the high-def transfer is as crisp and sharp as can be expected, and the interviews we get are interesting enough. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was a groundbreaking film and this Blu-ray release is a suitable tribute to it.