Film Review: Britannia Hospital (1982)


One of the most memorable moments of 2012 London Olympics happened during the opening ceremony which featured celebration of various pivotal moments and great economic, scientific and cultural achievements in British history. The most prominent segment featured National Health Service, institution that make various British political factions, usually divided on almost everything else, united in its defence. Anyone trying to attack NHS is going to pay dearly, as famous British director Lindsay Anderson learned following the premiere of his 1981 black comedy Britannia Hospital.

The film is sometimes seen as sequel, or the third part of trilogy which started with Anderson best known film If... and continued with 1973 picaresque epic O Lucky Man!, because in this film Malcolm McDowell repeats the role of Mick Travis. Here he appears in relatively small role of Mick Travis who now works as investigative journalist and tries to uncover various shady dealings in Brittania Hospital, huge NHS facility serving the patients in Southeast England. The hospital is to celebrate 500th anniversary of its founding by the visit of member of Royal Family, who is to open new wing. Hospital administrator Vincent Potter (played by Leonard Rossiter) is, however, faced with huge problems. Some are created by the hospital's union staff which uses the visit as the perfect opportunity for industrial action and demands to have private patients – those who had paid hospital expenses privately – ejected. Outside the hospital, mass of radical demonstrators demands that tyrannical African president, accused of cannibalism, be also ejected from the hospital where he is receiving treatment. All that is of little concern to hospital's main surgeon, Professor Millar (played by Graham Crowden) who has entire high-tech hospital wing for himself and where he conducts ambitious Frankenstein-like experiments with creation of artificial human life.

Anderson and his scriptwriter obviously took inspiration in 1970s decline of Britain and the escalation of social and political tension during the first years of Thatcher's government. The old, decaying and dysfunctional hospital, divided between arrogant upper class and crude, uncaring and easily corruptible lower class, was supposed to stand in for the country itself. Anderson's ambitious project, however, had misfortune of having premiere in the worst possible moment – during the Falkland War, when the entire country, and even some usually anti-establishment figures who would sympathise with Anderson's views, got embroiled in patriotic fervour. Britannia Hospital barely had commercial run in cinemas and was utterly rejected by British critics.

Decades later, in much different economic and political circumstances, Britannia Hospital might be seen from vastly different perspective, but it doesn't mean it is a good film. Anderson's satire in the film is too crude, too predictable and lacking any subtlety. One good example is a dwarf and a man in drag playing Palace officials preparing for the royal visit. Furthermore, there isn't that much humour in the film and it is often drowned in rather unpleasant scenes of graphic violence, more suitable to horror films that used to create "video nasties" moral panic at the time. Film quickly loses much of the focus, ending with pseudo-environmentalist sermon by Professor Millar which only confuses audience, uncertain whether the character was supposed to deliver some sort of ironic point or simply expressed authors' views. The only things that, to a certain point, works in this film is the cast, especially Crowden as mad scientist and Rossiter as the only "normal" and pragmatic character with whom audience might like. Some members of the cast are tragically wasted, though, most notably Mark Hamill, then at the height of his Star Wars fame, who appears in the hardly noticeable role of television news crewman who gets high. This film forced Anderson to leave Britain and continue the rest of his career in United States, but Anderson had only himself to blame for that.

RATING: 4/10 (++)

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I have developed a liking for classic films and I have never read anything about this one. When you mentioned it was a trilogy I thought it could be interesting but thanks for clearing everything out about this film. I shall skip it then.