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Retro Review: BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982)

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BRITANNIA HOSPITAL
(UK - 1982; US release 1983)

Directed by Lindsay Anderson. Written by David Sherwin. Cast: Leonard Rossiter, Graham Crowden, Malcolm McDowell, Joan Plowright, Jill Bennett, Marsha Hunt, Robin Askwith, John Bett, Frank Grimes, Mark Hamill, Peter Jeffrey, Fulton Mackay, John Moffatt, Dandy Nichols, Brian Pettifer, Vivian Pickles, Marcus Powell, Arthur Lowe, Alan Bates, Catherine Wilmer, Dave Atkins, Peter Machin, Gladys Crosbie, Rufus Collins, Robbie Coltrane, Tony Haygarth, Richard Griffiths, Dave Hill, Roland Culver, Val Pringle, Liz Smith, Gordon John Sinclair, T.P. McKenna. (R, 116 mins)

An anarchic, absurdist black comedy that's a scathing satire of England under then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, 1982's BRITANNIA HOSPITAL was the final chapter of the very loosely-connected "Mick Travis" trilogy from director Lindsay Anderson and writer David Sherwin. Following 1968's IF... and 1973's O LUCKY MAN!, BRITANNIA HOSPITAL brings back Anderson protagonist Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell), now a muckraking documentary filmmaker who relocated to Arkansas but is back in his native London to cover various goings-on at the beleaguered Britannia Hospital. They've got a lot on their plate, starting with a highly-publicized visit from the Queen Mother (Gladys Crosbie), with a laundry list of distractions putting the whole operation in jeopardy: striking nursing staff has led to a marked decline in patient care, including dead people left on gurneys at admitting; the socialist kitchen staff are refusing to prepare the elaborate meals demanded by the wealthy VIP patients; one of those patients is African dictator President Ngami (Val Pringle), a ruthless, Idi Amin-like despot who slaughters children in his country and is reputed to be a cannibal; Ngami's presence at the hospital has sparked intense protests by increasingly large crowds just outside the entrance gate; and quack mad doctor Professor Millar (Graham Crowden, reprising an O LUCKY MAN! character) is about to kick off the grand opening of the Japanese-financed Millar Center for Advanced Surgical Studies, a mysterious new wing of Britannia Hospital where he and his staff are conducting top secret experiments with unwitting patients, all of this under the watchful eye of an all-knowing AI supercomputer known as "Genesis."




A cable fixture in the mid '80s that's just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), BRITANNIA HOSPITAL is, in a word, a lot. It's freewheeling to the point where it's easy to write it off as an unwieldy, chaotic mess and maybe it is, but there's a certain audaciousness to it that makes it impossible to just dismiss. The two storylines finally intersect at the end, but for much of its duration, the film feels like two wildly different Anderson projects that the director just threw together. The satirical bits involving the striking workers and the Queen Mother visit have a cynical, Paddy Chayefsky thing going on, while the sections with Travis investigating Millar take the film in a truly jarring direction that had to throw off highbrow critics who adored Anderson's previous work. The director was no stranger to disregarding cinematic convention, but a crazed Millar chopping off Travis' head and putting it onto a badly-stitched body in a grotesque FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN riff is something no Anderson fan in 1982 would've seen coming.




Each of the two disparate plot threads work in fits and starts--the splattery result of Millar's Travis experiment is hilariously over-the-top and outrageously gross in a way that prefigures the likes of Peter Jackson's DEAD ALIVE--but it also prevents BRITANNIA HOSPITAL from finding any kind of rhythm or momentum. Top-billed Leonard Rossiter, a veteran character actor (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN) who, by this point in his career, carved a niche for himself playing uptight, bureaucratic toadies, is perfectly cast as harried hospital administrator Vincent Potter, trying and failing to keep it together as things keep escalating beyond any semblance of control. Rossiter died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1984 at just 57, and was such a workhorse to the end that he was still popping up on British TV and in movies as late as 1986's WATER, where he played yet another bureaucratic asshole, this time in the form of a pompous politician.


The ensemble cast is almost too packed to keep track of without taking notes, with appearances by Joan Plowright as a hospital union official; Robin Askwith as the head cook leading the kitchen revolt; Peter Jeffrey as a supercilious surgical chief; Mark Hamill--in between EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI--as Travis' sound engineer who spends most of the film in the production van watching TV and getting stoned on Nicaraguan weed, oblivious to his boss' cries for help when he's being decapitated by Millar; Marsha Hunt (a Mick Jagger ex long assumed to be the subject of "Brown Sugar") as a Millar nurse secretly getting info for Travis; John Bett in drag as a Buckingham Palace official named Lady Felicity; Richard Griffiths as hospital radio DJ Cheerful Bernie; Robbie Coltrane as a protester; and "guest patient" Alan Bates as a corpse, murdered by Millar after not dying quickly enough ("I'm afraid he's lingering"), for the purpose of his reanimation experiment only to have his head turn "pulpy" when it's kept at the wrong temperature, prompting Millar's need for Travis' head as an impromptu replacement. Not everything in BRITANNIA HOSPITAL works, but it's legitimately unpredictable and frequently batshit insane, though some things still resonate on a serious level, whether it's patient care and insurance concerns, or one unexpectedly topical scene where a peaceful female protester offers a flower to a cop only to get violently punched in the face, instantly sparking a massive riot that ultimately spills into the halls of the hospital.


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