Mary Poppins Returns
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This attempt at Swiftian satire wasn't too swift.
An acerbic British black comedy.
The bitterness of the satire has served to marginalize Anderson's final chapter. See it, but be aware that it's a chilly blast of unpleasantly cold air.
Some might question how Mick Travis got to be successful enough to be a reporter, what with his questionable competence, but weird, news-worthy stuff seems to be following him everywhere, so he may as well make a career out of it, kind of like how Malcolm McDowell made a career out of playing Mick Travis. Seriously though, folks, the luck man is back, for the final time, and it only took him nearly ten years since "O Lucky Man!" to get to this point. Well, it does take just about ten years to watching, and films like "A Clockwork Orange", "Caligula" and most everything else that Malcolm McDowell was in during the '70s were more-or-less continuations of the "Mick Travis" saga, but Lindsay Anderson still took his time to wrap things up. Maybe he wanted to just leave it with "O Lucky Man", not really wanting to make the spin-off about the mad scientist in "O Lucky Man!", and Alan Price just had Anderson make another movie for him to score once he realized that leaving The Animals probably wasn't the most financially wise thing he could have done. No, Price had a respectable solo run (He isn't dead yet, just his career), but the most memorable thing he had going for him around the time he worked on this film was yet another cover of "The House of the Rising Sun", so it's not like he had much better to do. Yeah, maybe this wasn't the financially wise project for Price, because the funny thing about a slow black comedy that makes fun of society and agencies to support health is that they're not exactly marketable. That's a shame, because this film has some worthy things to say... or at least I think it does, because as decent as this film is, I can't tell what exactly is going on, partly because the film doesn't say much about who is involved.
Never even coming out to tell us whether this Mick Travis role who stands at the focus of all of this absurdity is a consistent character or simply a stock everyman who changes to fit the distinct aim of each installment in Lindsay Anderson's "Mick Travis Trilogy", this film saga of black satire has never really been characterization, so, although they're not among the biggest issues of the final product, developmental shortcomings distance you from the characters and their stories almost as much as the weirdness which no amount of flesh-out in the context of this narrative can completely compensate for. I don't suppose this film is quite as bizarre as the shamelessly bonkers "O Lucky Man!", but, make no bones about it, this film is maybe a little too weird at times, with many set pieces that are simply effectively satirical in their surrealism, and at least just as many set pieces that are way too over the top to even be embraced as thematic. It doesn't exactly help that the themes are convoluted, being worthy and adequately palpable about as often as not, but overwrought and excessive, to the point of convolution that is made all the worse by an excessive plot structure. Ever so shockingly, there's not really a whole lot of Mick Travis here, and that's because he's fighting with everyone else for the attention of the storytelling, whose focus is so uneven that it's unreal, spending way too much time with each story in this ensemble pieces, until a sense of overall progression in this layered narrative is more-or-less lost. Excess is ultimately the key problem here, because even though this is far from as overblown as, say, the three-hour-long "O Lucky Man!", there's simply too much going on, and to make a sense of aimlessness all the worse, pacing is slow, or at least feels like it, when backed by a trademark British dryness. Lindsay Anderson has come a fair distance since the perhaps artistically subdued "if...", to where, to one extent or another, this film is plenty of fun, but its cold spells, combined with a startlingly excessive narrative, ultimately prove to be exhausting more often than it probably should. The film is a bit of a challenge, but if you're able to embrace it for what it is, there is honestly plenty of entertainment value to take in, even within Anderson's both dry and colorful storytelling.
Perhaps the toning down of a rather dull, almost abstractionist form of dryness to Lindsay Anderson's direction derives from Anderson's toning down on style altogether, which makes it harder to get past the simple British dryness that is still a little bland, but when Anderson does, in fact, pick up some momentum with moderate stylistic flare and a tight orchestration of colorfully written set pieces, entertainment value sparks. Like I said, once you get used to the film, more often than not, it's not simply entertaining, but a lot of fun, and for that, credit is due to Anderson, or at least Anderson's solid work with such colorful aspects as, say, the performances. Anderson and writer David Sherwin may have never been that good at fleshing out colorful characters as much more than supplements to surrealist thematic value, yet Anderson has always been good at getting lively performances out of people, and sure enough, from the underused Malcolm McDowell as one of everyone's favorite British everymen, to Leonard Rossiter, Graham Crowden, and most all other members of this immense cast, there is an electric amount of charm. If nothing else drives this film throughout its course, it's a solid cast full of charisma, but that's not the only thing which endears you to a story that, to be fair, was always going to do a decent job of holding your attention. The actual dramatic substance of this comedy is certainly thin, and if there is meat on the bones of this story concept, then it is typically convoluted excess that the film can hardly keep a coherent grip on, and yet, with plenty of lively layers, and such intriguing themes as the flaws of contemporary British medicine and society, and the dangers within trying to make a change, this story concept holds plenty of potential for color that is done a degree of justice by Anderson's direction, and a considerable deal of justice by the performances and, to a less consistent extent, the writing. David Sherwin's writing is a mess of convoluted focus and themes, all backed by a rather subdued pace, yet it does still carry plenty of color here, with interesting, if thin characters and set pieces, as well as many, many aspects of black humor whose occasionally disturbing audacity, wit and fluff range from pretty amusing to all-out hysterical. The film is a riot at times, and when it's not, it's adequately entertaining, and although that doesn't get this messy film too far, it does get you by, if you can go with this crazy affair, that is.
When it's time to check out, there's not much exposition to endear you to overly weird character in overly weird scenarios whose thematic value is about as convoluted as the focally uneven, overlong and occasionally dry directed narrative itself, thus, the final product falls as underwhelming, despite the lively highlights in colorful direction, charming acting, and often hilarious writing - all backed by an interesting, if overwrought story - that secure "Britannia Hospital" as a fairly entertaining, if challenging conclusion to Lindsay Anderson's classic black comedy trilogy.
2.5/5 - Fair
In the 1950s and 1960s Lindsay Anderson was hailed as a visionary, with If... receiving the Palme d'Or and widespread critical acclaim. In the 1970s, he was regarded as intelligent but indulgent, with O Lucky Man! dividing critical opinion upon its release. By the 1980s, he was branded obsolete, with Britannia Hospital receiving the worst notices and lowest box office of his career. In hindsight that is a crying shame, since the film is both a return to form from O Lucky Man! and one of the most underrated films of the early-1980s.
Britannia Hospital is the third and final instalment of the Mick Travis trilogy, coming nearly nine years after O Lucky Man!. Having been the centrepiece of the last two films, Travis (played by Malcolm McDowell) takes only a peripheral role here - he has risen from schoolboy revolutionary to coffee salesman and filmstar, only to wind up as a muckraking reporter with two stoned technicians. We can see through the trilogy a shift in semi-autobiographical emphasis from Anderson (If....) to McDowell (O Lucky Man!) and finally the nation as a whole.
The film's biggest improvement on O Lucky Man! is the quality and integrity of its narrative. O Lucky Man! had so much to do, and so many stories to tell, that it ended up spreading itself too thin to achieve a knockout blow: it resembled pouring a pint of stout onto a very wide saucer. By confining itself to the events of a single day, in a single location, Britannia Hospital is more readily focussed. Even though it looks at many different groups of people, it succeeds as a microcosm of Britain in the same way that If.... did, and manages to be more universal even when it drifts into outright horror or fantasy.
Britannia Hospital is also a very unusual and interesting mix of genres. It is on one level a farce, albeit one with a great deal more sophistication and ambition than the Carry On series or the work of Blake Edwards. On another level, it is a political drama, in which the organised and politicised working classes take on both the middle-class managers and the upper class establishment embodied by the private patients and 'HRH'. On a further level, it is a full-blooded horror movie which draws on the traditions of Hammer and grand guignol. Leonard Rossiter's snarling and repressed manager is in stark contrast to Graham Crowden's Rotwang-like mad scientist, in a performance reminiscent of Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood.
Britannia Hospital is primarily a lament or requiem of modern Britain. By comparing the state of the nation to that of a hospital constantly facing a crisis, Anderson is lambasting both the old guard and the post-war governments which attempted to brush them aside. Where O Lucky Man! skirted around the notion of champagne socialists and the corruption of politicians and lawmakers, Britannia Hospital launches a vitriolic attack on all sides from all fronts, showing how much the post-war dream has been eroded by self-interest and misjudgement on the part of everyone.
In light of Anderson's life-long association with the British Left, you would expect such a thesis to treat the treat union movement with a certain amount of sympathy. But Anderson is merciless, almost to the point of bitterness, in pointing out the duplicity of the union movement with regard to the aims of the people it claims to defend. The film begins with an absurdist vignette of an old man with hypothermia. The ambulance drivers barter their way past the picket line, only for the manto be left on a stretcher in the corridor because both the nurses and porters have clocked off for the night. As Rossiter's name appears he breaths his last; through little more than pedantry and selfishness, the health service is prevented from doing the one thing it was set up to do.
Britannia Hospital finds the public and the private co-existing uneasily in the new welfare state. The plight of ordinary patients, for whom the NHS is a matter of life or death, is contrasted with the attitudes of the VIP patients in the private ward, who demand to be treated like royalty. Their number includes a child-eating dictator (a further nod to O Lucky Man!) who has taken up residence in his own private ward. When the catering staff go on strike, matron is forced to offer the private patients oranges for breakfast; her efforts are met with anger, disgust and racial epithets, with one general remarking: "I didn't spend forty years in India to end up with a lot of wogs!".
The Britain depicted in Britannia Hospital is a country which is deeply fractured, being torn apart by violence, injustice, inequality and the threat of revolution. But again, Anderson doesn't just fall into the trap of making propaganda, turning out his own private Battleship Potemkin. He characterises Britain as a nation about to turn its back not merely on socialism and the achievements of the welfare state, but on idealism and intelligence as a whole in favour of the simplicity of brute force and tribal warfare. The riot scenes are kinetic and frightening, but they also have a heart-breaking quality, summed up by an image of a protester offering a riot policeman a flower, only to get her head smashed in with his baton.
The film also has very little time for the media, with both sets of film crews coming in for a lot of stick. Mick's technicians (one of whom is played by Mark Hamill) are portrayed as sensationalist and lazy: while Mick is crawling around the hospital sticking his neck out to get the footage, they get stoned and laugh themselves stupid watching documentaries about battery hens. The BBC fare no better, coming over as sycophants who fabricate events around Dr. Millar to inflate his ego and make him feel more like a God.
Despite Anderson's depression about this state of affairs, the film manages to tackle these pertinent and vital political issues without ever slipping into self-pity. Anderson's sense of righteous anger at what is unfolding is matched by fear on his part for the future of the country his loves, and by a feeling of pathos on the part of the characters. The humour is satirically vainglorious - for instance on the soundtrack, where Alan Price plays 'Rule Britannia' very slowly for maximum irony.
There is a comparison between Britannia Hospital and the work of Pink Floyd around the same period, namely The Wall, the subsequent film helmed by Alan Parker, and The Final Cut which was accompanied by a 20-minute short. Britannia Hospital itself shares certain features with The Fletcher Memorial Home: it is a bastion for a bygone age based upon privilege and order, which has since been eroded and rendered all-but-obsolete. Running through all these projects is a theme of missed chances and regret, which will echo through the plight of future generations.
Britannia Hospital is also an attack on positivism, showing the march of scientific progress continuing at the expense of mankind. One of the core themes of modernist art is Man feeling lost in a world which is constantly evolving, and which He at best struggles and at worst fails to control. In this case we have Dr. Millar, up to his old tricks again, as the maverick private pioneer being sponsored by (but not controlled by) the state.
Where O Lucky Man! felt in places like The Island of Dr. Moreau, the horror elements of Britannia Hospital are a retuning of Frankenstein. It takes a story about humans trying to live forever, leaves in Mary Shelley's warnings about the dangers of progress, and adds disturbing allegories for social engineering. What begins with Travis finding foetuses in jars or freezers full of limbs culminates in a terrifying sequence where his head is grafted onto Millar's monster - it comes to life, only to attack its creator and disintegrate. The gore in these scenes is worthy of anything in Sweeney Todd or Lucio Fulci, coming virtually out of nowhere and being terrifying gruesome.
But by far the highlight of Britannia Hospital is its final scene. With a cross-section of society gathered, from royalty to revolutionaries, Millar gives a passionate speech about humanity's need to reinvent itself and the inherent injustices of the status quo. He concludes by revealing 'Genesis', a giant brain which begins to recite from Hamlet before repeating the line 'How like a God'. It's a wonderfully judged paean complimented by creepy special effects and Crowden as his absolute best.
There are flaws with Britannia Hospital. Some of the broader, more farcical comedy doesn't work, such as the clichéd sequence of Travis crawling out of the mass of people. And its sexual politics have not dated all that well: the random sex scene with the nurse feels jarring and unnecessary. But as both a plea for intelligence in a time of crisis and a savage social satire, it still holds up both on its own and as a fine conclusion to the trilogy. It's a twisted tale of compassion and caustic humour, and remains a hidden gem of British cinema.
If you like films that leave an impression on you - then you'll like this. I saw this for the first time when I was quite young, I think my dad wished he'd known how weird it would get, or he probably wouldn't have let me watch it with him.
Whilst there is a riotous strike going on outside the hospital there is weirdness going on inside, as an eccentric doctor performs some truly sadistic acts on his patients to fulfill his own ambitions.
Its full of faces any 30-plus British audience will recognise, and if you're an Orbital fan you'll love the speech at the end which they sampled for Snivilisation.
A cult black comedy, with some quite horrific bits in, its quintessentially British, but definitely not in the vain the Full Monty or Four Wedding.
I'm not sure I understood the politics behind the story, but it's a very interesting movie, very unique. It's actaully the third in a series of movies starring McDowell. I'd only recommend seeing this if you've seen the other two.
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