PRIDE 2020: ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ (1971) Uses Sexuality to Portray the Longing for Love

“And now, I want his company, and they say, ‘What’s half a loaf? You’re well short of him.’ And I say, ‘I know that. But I miss him, that’s all.’”

Sunday Bloody Sunday asks us the question: is it better to have unfulfilled love or no love at all? Jewish doctor, Daniel Hirsh’s (Peter Finch), musing on the old ‘half a loaf is better than none’ idiom is the central theme of the film where Daniel and the recently divorced Alex (Glenda Jackson) both have relationships with bohemian bisexual artist, Bob (Murray Head). Daniel and Alex want more from their shared lover, but Bob has his eye on a new life in New York. Released in 1971, Sunday Bloody Sunday made waves for depicting the first man-on-man kiss in mainstream British cinema, portraying a bisexual character and for portraying a polyamorous relationship. The reason the film works so well is because all of these watershed moments aren’t there to shock, but feeds into what the story is trying to explore: the longing for love even when it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Even with Bob in the centre of attention, the story belongs to Daniel and Alex, with Finch and Jackson claiming wins and nominations for their respective roles. Daniel is a homosexual who had a Jewish upbringing and keeps his sexuality a secret from his family and community. Alex is an intelligent woman who longs for more but is unhappy with her job, being single, and childless with societal pressure pushing down on her. Bob acts as their escape and they both fall for the idea of a nonconformist lifestyle. We spend a good amount of time seeing Alex and Bob together, happy and comfortable with each other, before seeing the same with Daniel and Bob. Daniel and Alex love Bob and Bob returns that love until he dashes off, leaving Daniel and Alex to reflect on their loneliness. This poly-mono relationship quickly gets under their skin.

Writer, Penelope Gilliatt, takes an interesting turn early on in the story, having Daniel and Alex know about each other. They have to cope with the fact that Bob isn’t just running off, but is seeing someone else, and he won’t commit in the relationship any further. To hammer home this longing of love, Daniel and Alex know Bob will be moving to New York soon. Bob will escape their advances for a monogamous relationship, leaving the pair with no love at all.

A man sits across from a woman in a cluttered apartment.
Image courtesy of BFI

As the film’s plot plays out, there is a fantastic reoccurring motif of the telephone: most of the dialogue in the first few scenes are over-the-phone, as each of the three lovers attempt to communicate with one another but can’t seem to get an answer. In the middle is the telephone operator (Bessie Love), who obviously knows as much about the poly-mono relationship as the people involved do. We see literally that the characters find it difficult to communicate and converse with each other but nearly every scene will feature a telephone ringing in the background that feels unanswered. As much as Daniel and Alex try to express their love and commitment to Bob, he simply does not answer back.  

Although you could argue that Bob’s bisexuality is never a point of conflict within the story, both Daniel’s and Alex’s sexuality and character are. Daniel has had to hide his homosexuality from the world, and we see the difficulties that brings. His Jewish community attempts to set him up with a Jewish woman and questions his marital status as a middle-aged man, to which he replies, “I haven’t found the right person.” Earlier on when an ex-lover exasperatingly approaches him whilst driving  and gains the attention of a police officer, Daniel reluctantly pulls him into the car. Even with homosexuality legalised, the queer communities still had to (and still to this day) look out for each other in certain situations. Alex, on the other hand, doesn’t face the pressures of being gay but faces the challenges of being divorced and childless. The Hodson family, friends of Bob and in extension friends to Daniel and Alex, may seem ‘progressive’ but they still wish Alex and Bob were married. A pivotal scene sees Alex meet with her mother (Peggy Ashcroft) who also wishes for Alex to be married, even if in marriage there is also “no ‘whole thing.’”

The film acknowledges the difficulties people face for their sexuality and their gender, but it also lets the characters be who they are too. Daniel and Alex are at their happiest in Bob’s company, which becomes an escape from societal norms and pressures. Of course, that escape doesn’t always last forever. It seems Sunday Bloody Sunday is quite pessimistic towards love, but as the characters learn and grow the film decides to answer the question posed in the brilliant, fourth-wall breaking final monologue: is half a loaf of bread better than nothing? “All my life, I’ve been looking for someone courageous and resourceful, unlike myself, and he wasn’t it. But something. We were something.”

Sunday Bloody Sunday is available on Blu-Ray.