And Now the Streaming Starts Presents:
BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982)
Review by Jenny Orosel
Cinematic history has had some legendary director/actor teams, duos who could only create the masterpieces together. Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. John Waters and Divine. Lindsay Anderson and Malcolm McDowell. The latter only made three films together, ….IF (1968), O LUCKY MAN (1973), and BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982). I’ll be focusing on BRITANNIA HOSPITAL for this column, as it’s the most easily accessible, and for sentimental reasons, since it was the first I saw of the three.
The trilogy has one connecting thread, the character of Michael “Mick” Travis, played by McDowell. While there are small bits that continue from one film to another, mostly the films stand on their own and don’t have to be watched in order. In fact, it’s best to not expect a linear connection, since Travis may or may not die multiple times by the time the three movies are over. ….IF looked at the school days of Travis and his friends. O LUCKY MAN centers around Travis and his emergence from young adulthood to jaded grown-up. BRITANNIA HOSPITAL is more of an ensemble story, with Travis’ adventures being only a part of the tales.
The entire movie takes place on one day in and around Britannia Hospital. However, this is not a typical day. The janitorial and cafeteria staff are on strike, blocking the incoming ambulances and refusing to cook special meals for the wealthy patients in the private ward. There are additional protesters outside the hospital, angered by the care being given to a homicidal dictator from an unnamed African country. To complicate things even further is the planned visit of the Queen, which cannot be rescheduled for a less turbulent day.
Mick Travis leads a team of investigative reporters (which includes Frank Grimes and Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill) looking into allegations of strange goings-on in the hospital. Professor Millar (played with a creepy detachment by Graham Crowden) has been experimenting with human evolution. If you heard that phrase about any other movie, it would set off suspended disbelief alarms all over the place. In this movie, though, it makes perfect sense. He has been collecting various “perfect” specimens of human body parts. For what? It doesn’t take much imagination to realize.
While the hospital’s administrators are fighting to get the kitchen staff to allow special lunches for the Queen, Millar and his staff are quickly trying to “put the pieces together” for their big demonstration for the royal visitor. Travis has infiltrated the hospital and is getting actual footage of the human experimentation. However, instead of watching his back, Travis’ team instead gets stoned and joins the protests against the dictator, with lethal consequences for Travis. Since this is an Anderson film, his demise doesn’t mean we have seen the last of McDowell on screen.
Outside, the protesters against the dictator meet with the striking employees and anti-capitalist groups who come together in a violent melee. Bystanders are dismembered, the gates are being smashed, and still the hospital administrators do their best to facilitate a royal visit free from unpleasantries. By the time the Queen does make it through the gates, the bodies will pile up, the body parts will be in an even bigger pile, and we will find that Professor Millar’s experiments are even more disturbing than we imagine.
As with the other movies in The Trilogy, there isn’t much nuance to most of the characters. Especially the secondary characters; Anderson tends to make them archetypes. Instead of representing actual humans, they tend to represent symbols, meaning more in the advancement of the story or statement. The exception is McDowell’s Mick Travis. It made sense for O LUCKY MAN, where he carried almost every shot, and even in ….IF where he shared the spotlight with a handful of other students. Despite his comparatively small role in BRITANNIA HOSPITAL, Travis is a fully-rounded person.
This does not mean the other characters aren’t effective, particularly Crowden’s Professor Millar. Instead of playing him as a cartoonish mad scientist, his cold detachment is even more chilling, making him a truly frightening character. His amoral dedication to pure knowledge and science illustrates everything that could go wrong when we allow technology to advance unchecked. If we only focus on what we can do rather than on what we should do, Crowden’s villain could go from caricature to reality very quick.
Lindsay Anderson directed a handful of movies outside The Trilogy, notably THIS SPORTING LIFE (1963) beforehand and THE WHALES OF AUGUST (1987) after, both beautifully nuanced dramas. What we see in The Trilogy, and especially in BRITANNIA HOSPITAL, is a biting sense of humor. Even in the midst of the most intense scenes, Anderson can effortlessly slip in a gag, contrasting the horror of everything else happening onscreen. This can be attributed, not just to his mastery but to the fantastic screenwriting of David Sherwin. Sherwin also penned the other two films, but he definitely found the comedic rhythm of Anderson and McDowell by the time he wrote this one. The humor is most effective in heightening the horrific moments. When balanced with the lighthearted moments, the scenes of horror cut even deeper.
Anderson has a huge body of work outside of filmmaking (including criticism and stage work) that he will also be remembered for. McDowell has countless memorable roles, including the iconic Alex de Large of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). Yet, the three movies they made together deserve their own places in the film history books and in the hearts of the fans of cult film. BRITANNIA HOSPITAL is a perfect way to tie up a professional and personal relationship between two geniuses of the form. I cannot recommend The Trilogy enough, and BRITANNIA HOSPITAL is a fantastic way to ease yourself into their unique method of storytelling.
WHERE TO SEE THE MOVIE: BRITANNIA HOSPITAL is no longer in print on DVD but it is available for rent and purchase for streaming on Amazon.
© Copyright 2017 by Jenny Orosel