CAPSULE: BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Graham Crowden, Leonard Rossiter, Malcolm McDowell, Marsha Hunt

PLOT: The unions are picketing, mobs gather outside the hospital gates protesting the institution’s harboring of an African dictator, an investigative reporter is sneaking around posing as a window cleaner, and Professor Millar is continuing his secret experiments, all on the day Her Royal Highness is scheduled to grace Britannia Hospital with her presence.

Still from Britannia Hospital (1982)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Scattershot, though in  a pleasant way, Britannia Hospital is the least (and the least surreal) of Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell’s “Mick Travis” trilogy. It does end with an unexpected wowza of weirdness, however.

COMMENTS:The very first scene of Britannia Hospital sets Lindsay Anderson’s black and bitter tone. Picketers flag down an ambulance outside the hospital. “No admissions except by union dispensation,” croaks the protestor in a Cockney accent. The strikers check the back and find an old man gasping for air; the paramedic reads a newspaper while they check his paperwork before passing him through. Unfortunately, the old man gets inside the hospital just as the nurses are going on break. “You can’t leave that there,” says one supervisor of the soon-to-be corpse lying on the stretcher, but what are they going to do? They’re off the clock.

There are not many likable characters in Britannia Hospital. The hospital administrators are more concerned with serving a proper English breakfast to the private patients in their luxury suites than in healing the sick. The unions grind the institution to a halt over any perceived slight. The doctors pursue private research into Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. The protestors are looking for any excuse for a riot. Perhaps the closest thing to a sympathetic character here is Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), an investigative reporter planning to expose corruption in the hospital. (“MickTravis” was the name of the central character in the first two McDowell/Anderson collaborations, but he plays only a minor role in the ensemble cast here). Guess whether Travis gets a happy ending.

With the minor exception of a pair of royal protocol experts—a dwarf and a cross dresser—the arrogant and obsessed Professor Millar (Graham Crowden) is the strangest (and most fun) character in Britannia Hospital. His campy dialogue and reverence for “science!” make it seem like he’s stopped by on his way to the set of a Hammer Frankenstein picture to deliver his lines. His dastardly machinations even provoke an outrageous gore sequence, which further makes it seem like his character is on loan from a completely different movie. As for his final (and totally out-of-character) speech—the blank faces of the assembly reflect our own experience. We don’t know what to make of this “new beginning” he prophesies, or how in the world it is supposed to fit into the social satire that had been the movie’s currency up until this point.

I call the movie a satire because it mocks human vice, but Anderson’s outlook in Britannia Hospital is too bleak and hopeless to properly be described as satire. Satire implies a moral or political point of view; satire takes sides. The vision here is misanthropic and hopeless. The privileged upper classes are an easy target (the hospital harbors a cannibal, after all, just because he pays for a private suite). But we wouldn’t root for the lower classes, either. The union bosses are corrupt, hypocritical, and easily bribed. The mobs of protestors are willing to tear the innocent limb from limb along with the wicked. If they storm the hospital and overthrow the authorities, we are certain that the proletariat’s leaders will be no more virtuous than the current administration. The scorched earth tactics of both sides are tearing apart the hospital. It’s a naked power struggle: money on one side, numbers on the other. There are no good guys.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…another surreal Lindsay Anderson piece that takes many wild forays and yet still manages to come together as a whole in the end. This is as good, as clever, and as pointed as any of his better known stuff.”–Richard Winters, Scopophila (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Leo,” who said it “seems a bit odd.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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