Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Only really shown in the U.S. on cable television, and even there chopped by half a reel, Lindsay Anderson's followup to his weird-but-excellent O Lucky Man! almost ten years earlier is another dizzying satire of contemporary England. Perhaps autopsy would be the better word to describe this farce. Malcolm McDowell returns as Mick Travis, but he's almost a detail in a freak show of epic proportions, a kind of P.T. Barnum's Disfunctional Nation.
Britannia Hospital undergoes a fateful, fitful day of escalating madness and tension, into which devious reporter Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowall) penetrates with his spy television camera. Her Royal Highness is scheduled to visit to celebrate the building's 500th year of service. Hospital director Vincent Potter (Leonard Rossiter) tries desperately to keep this on track while fending off union work actions by the cooking staff, orderlies and painters.
Added to the rage of the strikers is a demonstration by black activists demanding the surrender to trial of President Ngami, an African despot claimed to be a murdering cannibal. He's a patient in the hospital's swank VIP ward that expects catered meals appropriate to their station.
A new adjunct to the hospital is a modernistic and supersecret
research facility run by the utterly insane Professor Millar (Graham Crowden), a latterday Frankenstein who has a plan to assemble an entire human from spare parts. He also claims to have created a living creature that will be the evolutionary successor to troubled modern man.
An elaborate and grisly joke, Britannia Hospital is a no-punches-pulled satire of the state of British affairs in the Thatcher era. Since Savant's only knowledge of English politics comes through movies like these, whether the extrapolations here are fitting or irresponsible is a mystery to me. The UK is portrayed as stricken by terrorist bombings on a daily basis. Union workers are shown refusing to help the wounded or feed patients ("We work an 8-hour day!"). Royals are represented by a midget and a female impersonator (at least I think he/she is). The main job of everyone in a position of responsibility is to stay centered on their own personal interest and behave as if all is just fine, even as disaster threatens from all sides.
Grafted, literally with blood and guts, onto this madcap black comedy is a far blacker view of the medical profession. The cash that could make Brittania Hospital function properly is all being funneled into the Quatermass-like glass fortress next door to the old building, where the telegenic Professor Millar is gleefully breaking all the laws of God and nature. If Britannia Hospital seems a bit like a retread of O Lucky Man!, it's because Mick Travis
once again becomes the potential victim of horrifying & atrocious medical experiments. Lindsay Anderson's two previous socio-political satires (including the original If...) were elaborate creations of slightly insane worlds with tentative, unresolved conclusions. At least here in Britannia, the windup is a science fiction stunner that hits us as strongly as it does Millar's assembled audience of fools. All the political terror and struggle will become obsolete, as the plan of science is to reduce humanity down to data on silicon chips.
Britannia Hospital has a lot of laughs, but they're all of the nervous black-comedy variety. The stubborn ignorance of the Unionists would seem ridiculous, if we weren't already prepared for it a generation before by I'm All Right, Jack. The insufferable elite in the VIP ward hardly seem exaggerated either, and Savant can't pass judgement on the the Idi Amin-like potentate. The Guignol in Millar's surgery is as gross and bloody as anything in a EuroHorror film of the time, with McDowall wrestling with shrink-wrapped frozen torsos, and himself becoming a patchwork of mismatched body parts. Only the wonderful Graham Crowden, usually given much smaller parts in Anderson pictures, saves these scenes. Here he runs amuck, the giddy grin on his face still making us laugh amid the showers of blood and heads being ripped off!
Anderson has a great ensemble, pegged around Leonard Rossiter(2001, Barry Lyndon)'s unflappable manager. Vivian Pickles and Joan Plowright do amusing turns, and Jill Bennett (The Nanny, Moulin Rouge) is loathsome as Millar's chief ghoul.
Other notable faces are introduced on the Hospital's feel-good closed-circuit radio station, or can be remembered from If... and O Lucky Man! The everpresent Arthur Lowe (The Ruling Class) has a very short bit as a discarded, dying dotard who may represent forgotten values from the Churchill era.
People looking for an extended romp with Malcom McDowall will be disappointed when his role doesn't dominate the proceedings. Fresh from Return of the Jedi is Mark Hamill, in for a thankless bit as a pothead television technician whose negligence gets McDowall turned into pork chops.
Anchor Bay's DVD of Britannia Hospital is a very proper presentation with an easily-understood
dialogue track, which helps us Yanks follow the starched UK accents. There are no subtitles or closed captions, not a plus. An interview with McDowall is a welcome extra; he talks about Anderson and writer David Sherwin and theorizes that this flag-bashing feature died at the UK boxoffice because it premiered right in the middle of the Falklands, make that Malvinas, war. This DVD supposedly has five minutes reinstated that were trimmed in the US; I don't remember seeing
the full frontal nudity of McDowall on the stitch'n paste operating table, but other than that I can't speculate on what might have been cut.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Britannia Hospital rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailers, Malcom McDowall interview
Packaging: Alphapak case
Reviewed: December 10, 2001
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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