The Plot: The Bethlehem Hospital in Yorkshire, or The Beth for short, is facing closure due to a lack of Government support. Cost-cutting measures and improving efficiencies are the keywords spouted by Whitehall management consultant Colin (Russell Tovey). He’s at the hospital to visit his ailing father Joe (David Bradley) and to convince head nurse Sister Gilpin (Jennifer Saunders) that it’s in the hospital’s best interests to move their geriatric patients elsewhere. What he doesn’t count on is the level of support and love for the hospital among its patients and staff including the compassionate Dr Valentine (Bally Gill)…
The Verdict: The embattled NHS in the UK has been the subject of much scrutiny over the last few years. It’s been stretched to breaking point by the pandemic, but that’s only one of the problems that it has had to contend with. Recent strikes have only illustrated the pay and conditions issues over there. No health system is perfect but it must also be defended against cost-cutting measures. That’s something on the mind of celebrated playwright Alan Bennett and director Richard Eyre, as they come together to adapt the former’s play for the screen. It focuses on a geriatric ward in a hospital earmarked for closure, as the patients face their last days as well. It might ostensibly look like a cosy ‘grey pound’ film with veteran acting luvvies like Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi, but beware. It’s also partly wrapped in barbed wire and presumably Bennett wouldn’t have it any other way.
In adapting the play, Heidi Thomas has made the central focus that of Indian immigrant nurse Dr Valentine. He cares deeply for older people. He knows that some day this will be him too and will have to rely on the NHS to look after him. He’s the anchor into this gateway of impending death kept at bay by the good humour of the staff, the other patients and the experienced and practical Sister Gilpin who presides over them all with a careful eye. He also becomes the moral compass of the film as issues crop up which would otherwise enter spoiler territory. There’s a decent spread of time here towards each character and their particular quirks, so that the audience comes to care for them and their place in the ward. Jacobi and Dench do wonders with characters that are admittedly thinly sketched. Russell Tovey is more than just a Whitehall stooge who thinks of the numbers and not the human cost. Jennifer Saunders gives an under-stated performance which goes beyond her usual comedian antics.
There’s no faulting the actors here and they pull together well to portray a small hospital community facing an uncertain future. There’s some charming old-age humour and a positive message about the NHS and why it needs to be saved from bureaucrats and bean counters. It’s also clear that Eyre and Thomas have followed the play’s attempt to throw a bomb into the third act and watch its divisive impact on the audience. Character arcs are left unresolved and it may leave a sour aftertaste for those expecting something uplifting and life-affirming. That would be the sugar-coated Hollywood version. This is the Bennett version and he doesn’t shy away from going to a more difficult place. It nearly derails the film, but there is a worthy message here in its head-on coda. Despite its obvious flaws and TV-style delivery, there’s still something powerful and poignant about Allelujah that tugs at the heartstrings while prodding the mind into action.
Rating: 3 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: Powerful & poignant
Directed by Richard Eyre.
Starring Jennifer Saunders, Bally Gill, Russell Tovey, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, David Bradley,